Callie Siskel’s Two Minds is neither minimalist nor maximalist, but the spareness and efficiency speak volumes—and sometimes speak in long lines, sometimes short—making an art of saying as little as possible, but crucially no less. What’s left out presses upon what remains, and what remains is both substantial and hard as stone. Here’s the beginning of “Invitation,” which begins with an invitation:

My initials curled inside the oval like three robins
crowding a tree hollow.

The cardstock was beveled, the envelopes lined in airy pink paper.

My father was dying

quietly like the sound of his pen lifting
then touching down again.

The book is made of five sections. Most directly, it’s an elegy for the poet’s father, but it’s also an elegy for youth and even more a reflection upon and a rejection of the binaries that seem ceaselessly to haunt us. A rejection, then, of easy resolutions. And a reflection on tradition—on Jewish tradition, Western art—mirrors come up in these poems, but not as often as the ekphrastic impulse, which permeates, maybe even generates the book. The impulse here is to look back at Western art looking back at us, and to watch manmade art watching—especially—women. In “Jeanne,” named for Modigliani’s muse who threw herself out of a window, Siskel writes, “When told I look like a man’s image / of a woman, I believe it.” And then, to set the record straight, to slough off the weight of history’s concatenations: “I do not. Nor do I look like Jeanne …”

But the book’s life is as much in its sense of whimsy and chance as in order and grief, and it’s this lightness that makes it so deeply compelling. “Why this need to eke out meaning / from every errant thing?” asks one poem. For it is a book, too, of echoes—echoing not only traditions and reflections, but the everyday voices that haunt in painfully banal ways:

Once, waking from a nap, [my father] asked me ‘Will I be okay?’
and I said, ‘Yes.’

Then it was time to chant Torah.

But what is an echo, if not another form of loss? These poems rise in their clean, sharp-edged grieving. They leave traces of unknowability as signs of deep feeling, signs that turn out to light the way into recognition. If there must be pain, let it at least be seen. And so the stakes in our grieving, the book seems to say, are the same as in our joy: “To echo is not to repeat, but to diminish.” Each moment, radically new and already lost.

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JESSE NATHAN: Could you talk a little bit about silence? How do you work with it, and against it, and within it? How does it shape your sense of what poetry is or can be?

CALLIE SISKEL: Silence has many negative connotations, and in terms of working against it—that’s the challenge to keep writing, to override the impulse to stay silent. But silence is also a practice and an aesthetic that I utilize in my writing. There’s the silence that happens off the page, before the poem is written, and the silence that imbues the lines. The former comes from the idea that we are writing even when we are not writing. It took me a long time to reach the point where I was ready to write the poems in Two Minds, but when they arrived, they arrived for me with urgency, and almost an exasperated sense of overdueness. I think I have learned to hone this feeling of writing once the internal silence begins to feel uncomfortable—it might not be the healthiest process, but it helps me catalyze emotion. I like to think of that anterior silence as potential energy—sometimes it seems to have so much potential that what is written doesn’t do it justice, but I’ve come to realize that the alternative is withholding, and as a writer that feels worse than a poem that approximates what I imagined.

I am also drawn to poems that enact silence in the form of white space, redaction, minimalism, and mystery. Silence in these ways is often the clearest space for the reader to enter. I love monostichs and couplets because they allow for many moments of pause—like musical rests. I’m thinking of my childhood piano teacher closing her fist at the sight of a whole note rest. I always thought the absence of my playing was more beautiful than the notes themselves. But, of course, that silence was dependent on the music that came before it. A break in the music or the words has the dual effect of accentuating what’s come before and also undoing it—allowing it to sink in and then fade away. There’s a vulnerability in stopping before starting again, in saying less than more. Silence is the before and after of any piece of writing. One way to think about poetry, especially given its relative brevity, is that it seeks to break that silence, and then return it to the reader differently.

JN: I’m curious about the ways your education in stricter formal poetry has shaped the freedom in your present work. I’m curious about the relationship between silence, repression, and form.

CS: Similar to a long waiting period before writing, a formal constraint creates a kind of pressure-cooker effect that I find motivating and enlivening. My introduction to poetry was through a class called “Versification” in college, in which you were graded on the accuracy and deftness of your rhyme and meter. It was exacting and maddening—there were “right” and “wrong” ways to write verse. One class, we debated whether a true spondee, a foot that is comprised of two equally stressed notes, is possible, or whether the human voice always prioritizes one syllable over another. I found that so interesting—the desire to impose order on the human voice. Our homework was to scan meter and then come prepared to “justify” our choices. While prosody helped my ear and led me to write things I wouldn’t have if given no limits, I ultimately found rhyme and meter too restrictive. I moved away from writing prioritizing sound toward writing prioritizing ideas.

What I took away from that class and the formal training in my MFA were instincts about the integrity of the line, internal rhyme or sonic coherence, and strong closures through line breaks and stanza breaks. There are specific formal constraints I like—a certain stanza length, the use of certain words, a conceit—but I also gravitate toward the overall sound of control, probably as a result of my early education. By that I mean a sense that the line, the syntax, is holding something back, the utterance slightly clipped. Perhaps that takes us back to silence.

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Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.