“The fool,” writes Jana Prikryl in a fragmentary line, “aware of his position, embracing it.” The words end a poem called “The Noncello.” It’s one of several so titled in Midwood, Prikryl’s latest collection, a dazzling dreamy Eliotic book of obsessions and desperations—of motherhood, of urban life, of palpable connection to the natural world—made visible in an efficient but wildly unexpected and gorgeous language. Patterning makes any art, but Prikryl shows why and how. There are twenty-four poems called “Midwood,” several called “The Noncello” after the Italian river, a “First Aubade” and a “Second Aubade,” a number of poems called “Another Visit,” and many more beginning with the article “A” and then adding a noun: “A Story,” “A Banquet,” “A Palinode.” The poems have only occasional punctuation—the line about the fool doesn’t end in a period—and many more come in nine lines, a three-tercet shape the poet found in Petrarch. Petrarch is fitting, because a great love—and one that seems actual, as opposed to the Italian’s—threads its way through what are often anxious or pessimistic glimpses: a world caught in a pandemic, “all the out of work musicians,” a rented house by the sea “turns out choked among houses,” a woman on the run has just time to say “what terrible / choices I’d made all my life with pants / I thought.” Sartorial comedy notwithstanding—and there are other moments of it, like “out of the sheath dress / gently hopping,” sly echo to Whitman’s “out of the cradle endlessly rocking”—the poet offers us, from time to time, nearly complete anecdotes, in a book that largely resists the anecdotal, even if it hasn’t stopped loving it. For instance, a short love poem, one for the ages, called “Ten O’Clock”:
Holding perfectly still at this party
a clutch of talkers, he’s at my four o’clock
you are at ten and you’ve cupped the fingers
of my left hand with the fingers of your left hand
as though no one will notice the little link
my whole occupation is holding still
so this may continue
all my feeling refuses
to toss the pebble in the current
Prikryl, whose family fled Czechoslovakia when she was five and who grew up in Canada, has written a page-turner—you can read it in one thrilling session—but one that cedes no ground on craft or lyric power. You can read these poems again and again. They flirt with disjunction, like T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” and they combine his ear and ancient sadness and vivid alienation with the abandon and precision of Mina Loy. “Surprise,” writes the poet, “was my own possession.” Motherhood: “the most arduous exacting work.” Life: in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is about halfway between Prospect Park and Coney Island, and where, during the early days of the great plague, the poet got up each morning and wrote almost directly from her dreams. “Each line was an accident,” she writes. Many of the poems are dream reports, but they never feel like someone boring you with their dreams—quite the opposite. They show reality for the fake it sometimes feels like, and for the dream or nightmare it actually is. A book about fertility and infertility, about struggling to make a place between two generations. That midpoint, middle of life’s wood, that Dante thought was the deepest of our human muddles. Prikryl, with her transatlantic education, slips in and out of such a present, and puts time’s passage into, for example, this brilliant bit of language looking back—
I fed an animal some grass
when Europe and America were
five inches closer to each other
JESSE NATHAN: Could you speak a bit about the title, Midwood? The word repeats throughout the book, and several poems are called “Midwood.” Where are the poems in this collection taking place? Or maybe the question is when?
JANA PRIKRYL: These poems take place in the middle of life’s way… The title is a sort of contraction of the first two lines of Dante’s Inferno and a reference to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood, which our apartment faces across a wooded, littered ravine; on this level I think of the title as a mordant little joke. The book’s central predicament is midlife, especially that of a woman, who has toiled to bring certain things into her life—a partner, a child, some stability and satisfaction in her work—yet finds there is always more to want, that longing never abates, the story of who she might become never stops. So the idea that midlife is some kind of mountaintop where you can pause and take in the view—though that might be one of your deepest longings!—is (of course) an illusion. We are haunted even by the ordeals we overcame in the past; the future never stops demanding that we change.
Something of Whitman’s Long Island drifts into the book, and the forests that are so alive in the Czech culture of my early childhood. I think of those early woods as places of great negative capability, metaphors for intuitions that are always on their way to us, truest just before they’re spelled out. The Forest of Arden is also in back of it, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially the way Shakespeare kept conjuring utopian possibilities for his characters by hiding them in the woods and letting new identities emerge, playing on the ordinary dreams we dream at night, which are really mini-theatricals—where we “have looked on truth / askance and strangely.”
Dreams became an important engine for these poems, in part because I was excited by the formal problem they presented. I’ve always felt vaguely embarrassed by poems based on dreams (a few appear in both of my previous books, and make me oddly uncomfortable), so in Midwood I decided to plow this furrow very deliberately. That’s also because much of the book was written in the first year of the pandemic, when my dreams became something like a social outlet, the most unpredictable part of my day/night. Often I’d tap out on my phone what I dreamt the night before as soon as I woke up, without pausing to reconsider the words I was using or where I was breaking the lines.
This was obviously a “bad idea” aesthetically, yet it felt like a necessary experiment—literally a series of essais, or trials, in which a voice speaks to itself in order to learn what it has to say. Eventually I revised each text, but at the heart of the experiment was the compulsion to see what direct, almost thoughtless narration—of a situation that felt terribly personal yet which I knew very little about—might do to my language. In some sense I wanted to be beside myself as I wrote the poems, like Rimbaud’s je est un autre—less a subjective “I” than a subject of observation.
And a lot of this book tries to harness the intimacy that exists between writer and reader. Conventionally we assume this intimacy to exist, much of the English tradition assumes the writer and reader have a special relationship, that the page is a zone of understanding, where social realities can be questioned and reinvented (“Call me Ishmael,” “Reader, I married him,” etc.). In writing these poems I felt a need to test that proposition, over and over again, like an insecure lover, no doubt because these days the transformative agency of that literary space is being seriously strained, not to say denied, by what’s happening in the world.
So there is little punctuation, and I avoided titles at first because they’re so performative. Ultimately I realized that without titles the poems ran together too much, but I stuck to two-word titles to keep them all quiet. Many of the titles repeat words from the poem because often the extracted word pair, as a title, pulls new meaning or significance from the phrase. That kind of underlining, and the other kinds of repetition in the book, seem like ways of tightening the screws, bringing the writer and reader into a smaller and smaller room to study these documents together. Hopefully a transaction takes place that is confidential—somehow secret, transgressive, inexpressible in any other form.