The opening poem of Salt Pier, ‘Cleave’, begins: “Close to the city, a deer/ leaves a hoofprint/ in our yard.” To a surprising extent, this first sentence provides a template for the whole collection.
Rarely is a book of poems quite so formally consistent. No poem is divided into stanzas. No poem has a line longer than pentameter, and lines even that long are very rare. Two beat lines are commonplace. Weirdly, in a remarkably high proportion of the poems, the first line is the longest.
A more demanding aspect of form is what Linda Gregerson on the back cover describes as the “problem solving logic of syntax”. I feel more inclined to call Kiesselbach’s syntax “problem setting”, as it requires solving by the reader. More on this later.
There’s a consistency of strategy too. A brief narrative or anecdote (often about an encounter with an animal), is spiced with strange, sometimes dark, statements about the human condition, so as to constrain metaphorical interpretation of the story. But not too closely — implications remain a little open, a little elusive, a little troubling.
There’s something mythic and aboriginal about all this — animal encounters as symbolic — but the poems feel entirely contemporary in their form and diction and also in their concerns with a variety of breakages in family relations. It’s possible to piece together a troubling biography (whether fact or fiction), involving psychological trauma, parental divorce, an oppressive stepfather.
Let’s return to ‘Cleave’, a poem which is typical, not only in technical aspects, but because it is compelling and haunting. It continues to tell a story about a deer’s hoofprint in the narrator’s yard. But soon we have: “I use your being/ on the phone/ to keep it to myself./ As if too much knowing/ could drive it away.”
The poem ends with the deer at a stream “one block away”, widening a hole in the ice with its foot, but only after the story has been further interrupted by three gently shocking lines: “When a person says/ forgive me/ the please is implied.”
Now, the issue of syntax. Kiesselbach enjoys constructing complex sentences, some of which are made more difficult to parse by being filleted into such short lines, which cut across the phrase structure.
Try this, the first sentence of ‘The Painted Hall, Lascaux’: “Mineral sweat beads patches of the ceiling/ of the Sistine Chapel of paleolithic/ cave art – calcium carbonate/ crystallized in hexagons/ flint tools couldn’t smooth.”
As well as complexity, and mid-phrase line-breaks, this sentence contains a favourite device: the relative clause with its relative pronoun omitted. It beats worrying about which versus that.
Here’s another example, from ‘Protect and Serve’: “Too cheap and poor to take a cab/ I choose to walk the bridge, not doubting/ it was meant for what I have in mind/ until the steel mesh platform/ I stepped from the sidewalk onto narrows/ to a catwalk above the boat-lit bay.”
I find this sentence pleasing, actually, but only after the several reads it took me to parse it correctly, with that relative clause after “platform”. Perhaps one might argue that the syntax is mimetic, the difficulty introduced at just the point the bridge-walker’s misgivings begin. I should also admit that I found the phrasing easier to deal with the more I read, as if I was learning from poem to poem, which added to my pleasure. Nevertheless, I wonder if the poems might sometimes benefit if the syntax were simplified, or if line breaks offered the phrase structure more visible support.
The book is divided into four sections. The distinction between sections wasn’t as obvious to me as the thematic and formal consistency of the book as a whole, except that in the final, fourth section, there is a diving motif, so that the animal protagonists are fish or other sea-animals. The final poem is the title poem of the collection, and describes an intriguing encounter between the narrator’s partner and an Octopus. It ends with one of Kiesselbach’s thought-provoking, layered sentences:
I’ve said for years,
but it’s untrue,
that’s why we dive
alone, where a live
sea floats the blank
burden of a risen home.
Salt Pier is published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pitt Poetry Series, 2012, £13.50 / $15.95
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)