When I think of Anne
Sexton’s glasses, I imagine then not on her face but in the collection of the
American billionaire who purchase them after she gassed herself in her garage. He
keeps them in a temperature-controlled case like an artifact, a page from the
King James Bible, a torn strip of papyrus, bitten with hieroglyphs. I saw a
photograph of this man once: innocuous, sweating like over-risen dough. Full of
unambiguous goodwill, but something else there, something hidden, the way the desert
in Texas where he lives might hide things. Does he gloat over the glasses,
think about the woman in her car? Does he sometimes, alone, convince himself he
sees her eyes in the frames? I imagine he sleeps in a temperature-controlled
room, his white bed square and hostile as a glass case.
Toronto-based poet and fiction writer Kate Cayley’s third full-length poetry title, following When This World Comes to an End (London ON: Brick Books, 2013) and Other Houses (Brick Books, 2017) [see my review of such here], is Lent (Book*hug, 2023), a collection constructed as a quartet of suite-sections, furthering her ongoing exploration of slow, unfolding lyric attentions. Cayley’s poems are almost structured as acts of unwrapping, or as working a particular kind of puzzle, each line inching closer towards a particular solution, discovery or revelation. “And if repetition could itself be / a form of attention,” she writes, as part of the opening poem, “Attention,” “folding along the crease / until the crease finds itself / hollowing out the groove, as in marriage, / studying the same face, the same / permeable body […].” As overused as the descriptor “unfurls” is for discussing poems, this single-sentence lyric poem does exactly that, moving resolutely across the page and through myriad line-breaks to question, open and reveal. It is curious that Cayley mentions repetition without specifically utilizing repetition through the collection, instead allowing each poem an echo of tone, rhythm and, yes, attention, as a way of garnering alternate perspectives. “I sit from time to time in empty churches,” she writes, to close the fourth and final poem in the short sequence-cluster “Dutch Masters,” titled “Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde, Church of Saint Cecilia, Cologne, / about 1670,” “not knowing how to pray. Hoping for belief / the way a tree might for the axe: show me / the pith of my own heart.”
Lent exists in four sections—“Interior,” “Art Monsters,” “Sixty Harvest” and the title sequence, “Lent”—the second of which includes a handful of poems and sequences, including the eight-poem sequence “Assia Wevill Considers Herself,” writing, as Cayley offers in her “Endnotes,” of the German poet who was “[…] the partner of Ted Hughes towards the end of Sylvia Plath’s life and after her death. Wevill committed suicide by the same method along with her young daughter in 1969.” There is such heartbreak in the straightforwardness of Cayley’s lines for Wevill, offering a clarity for a figure who became but a footnote in the larger narrative surrounding Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. “She closes / her eyes.” the sequence ends, “The animals gather / around the lake. The lake is on fire.” The section also includes the four-poem “Dutch Masters,” as well as shorter poems such as “Mary Shelley at the End of Her Life, Recalling the Monster” and “The Light in Vermeer.” Her attentions are fascinating through their precision, collecting details with the eye of an archivist and the heart of a poet, and one might wonder if this collection, on the surface, seeks to reference the Christian period of fasting and remembrance, or as something offered in loan to another. Perhaps neither, or perhaps both, although the opening of the second poem in this particular prose sequence offers: “There were people in the church today and I went in. I like the melancholy of churches. There is a spaciousness in failure. The minister, breaking the bread, wears a small smile that suggests he knows the futility of what he does and does it anyway, out of love, out of habit, the way the two are, over time, indistinguishable.” There is little that Cayley sees that is not allowed to completely remain on its own terms, collected within her lyric through through a deft hand, attentive eye and open ear. Or, as the poem “The Light in Vermeer” offers, to begin:
It pours the way milk
pours. The sky hard as porcelain. The woman
reading her letter, instructing her maid. The maid, pouring.
The blue of the sky and the
bowl means forgiveness, a hint of Madonna
crouched at the manger. Where is my mother?