What is the poet’s thumbprint—the thing by which we can say, “There goes Dickinson, or Bishop, or Eliot, and nobody else”? It varies by the poet, to be sure. For Dickinson, it’s the dash, that bold mark of hesitancy that breaks and remakes the line: “Worlds scoop their Arcs - / and Firmaments - row - / Diadems - drop - / And Doges surrender -.” For Bishop, it’s the moment of self-correction, when the poet writes the revisionary process into the poem itself: “from his lower lip / —if you could call it a lip— / grim, wet, and weaponlike, / hung five old pieces of fish-line, / or four and a wire leader / with the swivel still attached.” For Eliot, it’s the channeling of other voices into his own, from The Waste Land (“Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe”) to Four Quartets (“Sin is Behovely, but / All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well”).
For Jana Prikryl, who has just published her third collection of poems, the identifying marker is syntax. The critic Elizabeth Sewell once described grammar as “a choreography of language and mind.” Prikryl’s sentences are distinctly and idiosyncratically shaped—chopped apart and then spliced back together. They start in one direction and seem to lose their way only to find it again. Somehow, they’re both urgent and dilatory, getting where they’re going with great speed even while they take many side roads to get there. Take “First Voice,” the short opening poem from Prikryl’s new collection, Midwood (W. W. Norton & Company, 128 pp., $26.95):
Went fetal as an ear on the bed and tried to feel
the dusty blue rhomboid of window being
in the vanguard of twilight every second,
hurtling, the word impressing itself
as no hurtling would on my mind
through space on the back of this
whale turning, turning, punctual
the other cheek to that star
This serves as an excellent introduction to the distinctive rhythm, the distinctive hurtling, of Prikryl’s voice. The poem begins at a gallop (no time to be wasted on “I” before “went”) and it only gains speed as it rolls downhill. Every line but the third ends without punctuation; monosyllables—ear, bed, space, whale, cheek, star—drive things forward; the few commas just serve to emphasize words of action: “hurtling” and “turning.” At the poem’s beginning, the speaker, in the fetal position, is still. But her language and her mind move fast.
In Prikryl’s poetry, sense, dependent upon syntax, is always on the verge of breaking down. The words are often plain but their organization is oblique, off-kilter. The fourth line in “First Voice” opens dramatically, with an active verb and an initial stress, “hurtling.” Who is hurtling here? The speaker? The blue of the window? Language itself? All of them, it seems, and the world, too. Hurtling towards what, though? We have to wait another eleven words before we get an answer: hurtling “through space.” Through, not toward: prepositions matter, and Prikryl’s choice tells us nothing about directionality, at least not yet. We learn the medium, not the end. The penultimate line complicates things further, indicating that the speaker—or language, or the world—is hurtling but also turning. (In “turning, turning,” I hear the Eliot of both “Ash-Wednesday,” a poem of repeated turning/converting, and of The Waste Land, with its Augustinian repetitions: “To Carthage then I came // Burning burning burning burning”). Again, prepositions matter: turning of what and to what? We have a slight, puzzling pause at the word “punctual”—who is punctual? to what appointment or task?—before we get to the poem’s last line. Finally, things lock into some kind of place: the turning of the other cheek allows for a turning to that star, “the vanguard of twilight” that appears through the window. Now we can piece it all together: assuming passivity in the bedroom has enabled, it seems, an active attunement to the world beyond the bedroom.