Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Paige Ackerson-Kiely, My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer

In her second trade poetry collection, My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Boise ID: Ahsahta Press, 2012), Vermont poet Paige Ackerson-Kiely adapts the narratives of explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) and Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s (1888-1957) memoir Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure (1938) into a striking and unbelievably powerful collection of prose-poems. Robert Peary (in Ackerson-Kiely’s own notes) “was a U.S. explorer who claimed, April 6, 1909, to have reached the Geographic North Pole, a claim oft disputed. Peary made many expeditions to the Arctic, and famously brought several Inuit to the U.S. where, lacking immunity, most died.” Arctic exploration is something that bubbles to the surface of literature every few years, including by Kingston writer Steven Heighton writing of an earlier, failed expedition in his novel Afterlands (Knopf, 2005), or Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay referencing fragments of the same in her Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (New Star Books, 1993). The mystique remains, despite post-colonial stirrings that might render such interests obsolete. The north remains, and by contemporary writers, at least, remains predominantly unexplored.
The Pittance

On my pittance of I’ll do you if you do me, I have been strict in my stillness. It is a matter of indecent accrual, stacked upon, a compost of googolplex that the world should be mine for this pale, shivery packaging. If you love me I will love you back. spoiled dogs do not strain forward out of love, but for continued spoilage: Eventually you end up at a destination derived from the cartographer’s immeasurable desire for one true proportion. His cold-cracked hands lifting a camisole of cloud, sky behind mocking the bar’s neon invitation to drink a specific drink. Though we felt the same long night thirst, while those dogs worked so hard I continued to whip them.
Less a framing than a trace, a thread or perhaps echo, My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer uses the foundation of arctic exploration as part of a larger canvas, highlighting a series of tensions held so tight they can’t help but cut directly into the skin, densely packed as so few prose poems have ever done before. Is her “love” one also nearly-lost, or frozen in a desolate, unforgiving landscape, or is her “love” changed by the experience, finally returning home from desolation to a confused familiarity? Ackerson-Kiely’s language itself is one of longing, loss and exploration, striking wild in a variety of directions, stock-still enough to articulate the previously unseen, and never-known. Ackerson-Kiely’s poems explore waitress and explorers, love’s poor judgments, heartbreak and family (the poem “Notes for a Daughter Learning to Swim” is a particular highlight, and a rare piece referencing family life) and the equal possibilities and limitations of what the language will allow.
Numbers are Many, Words
Are Limited

How many times we did it.
How many nouns we can replace with it.

You say fulcrum; I say plinth.
We better call the calling off: Off.

Your special note cards full of sums.
What real estate is worth when you rent it out.

If my embarrassment raised up as a hair
on the hackles of a jackal. No—

if each jackal, crouched under this charming sun
could describe my ear, warmed
only by your swarthy breath—

as often as I could say:
I want you. Is never
Several poems here also respond to the work of artist Adie Russell, originally collected into a small collaborative chapbook, This Landscape (Argos Books, 2010), and the poem “Book About a Candle / Burning in a Shed” appears to be a companion poem to her chapbook of the same name, a collection of prose-poems published by above/ground press in 2011.
Book About a Candle
Burning in a Shed

One time in a shed a candle burned.

My thoughts were with the window
looking out over the dark yard.

I know it isn’t much—
the light inside just strong enough
to illuminate nothing really out there.

I snuffed it. The shed continued to contain me.

If you toss a penny on the ground eventually
the ground will gather the penny into itself:

No imagined bank for saving poor white girls
on the sawdust-covered floor where he

traced his finger under the waistband so lovely
I paid him back by keeping still.

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