Madeleine Cravens is a poet of delectable desolation. Pleasure Principle is the name of her first book, and beyond the Freudian reference I can’t help but hear the echo of another kind of principle, the principal, that which we pay when we pay what we owe. To grow up is, in some ways, to find out how much you owe—for and to childhood and its illusions, for and against its dreams and evasions. It’s possible we never really grow up, but only because the more we’re encased in our bodies, the more we’re so plainly still seeking the same things we always did—food, sleep, love, good times. And while this book is about pleasure, certainly—and there are electric sexual moments (“Ariana kissed me on the bridge, / then slept with Brandon after everyone / downtown lost power.”)—it is most of all a set of poems whose music grapples with the disintegration of the poet’s parents’ marriage even as it grapples with the rugged wasteland of young adult life and longing more generally. There are many poets writing spare, hyper-efficient lyric, but you would be hard-pressed to find one as sure-footed and savvy, and relentlessly good as this one. Pleasure Principle both tightens the screw—or to use another portmanteau phrase, it does not let you off easy—and at the same time wakes up language to its tautest pleasures.

At the book’s core is a longer poem, short sections over several pages that I think demonstrate what I mean. Here’s the eighth of twenty-two:

December. The mechanics
on Atlantic are preparing for snow.
I call the hotline with a theoretical question.

The man who answers tells me to make time
for pleasure. How can I tell him I am tired

of pleasure. I want to live quietly, beyond
cities, their histories, the need for parks
and architecture, oak trees hanging low
over the service road—

There’s a marauding lullaby to these sounds, the echo of “low” and “road,” or “time” and “tired,” or mechanics on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The poem holds back the unsayable, taking us just to the limit, and the minimalism shines:

After we met,
I sent you a picture of my naked body.
Good girl, you said, and something inside me shifted,
came unhinged.

The book doesn’t hew to a single narrative, but instead is committed to giving glimpses of a life, a life often strafed by melancholia. The disillusionment of heartbreak. The tragedy of things not only not working, but, it turns out, maybe never having worked—for we live in a time of great undoing—

My mother and I had a game, too.
Each fall, we would count the Japanese maples,
distinct because of their jagged leaves. I never loved
him, I remember her saying, just once,
as we crossed the plaza.

Devastating. The speaker’s mother, either in a moment of truth or a moment of vindictive rage—or both—denying she ever loved the speaker’s father. Cravens doesn’t qualify the voice. Is the line delivered casually? Is it spit? The poet won’t overdetermine for us, and this is her gift. She grew up in New York, and so the childhood remembered in these lines from time to time, as well as the youthful adventures, are often set there in the wildness of the urban. But the book lands among the voices of the far west, in California—places like the Bay Area and La Jolla and Laurel Canyon and Highway 5 speeding north out of Los Angeles. Amy Hempel said the thing about California is you can just drive and drive and drive. “Orange trees,” writes Cravens, “blurred into feedlots” and “withered rows of almond groves.” (Again that music: rows of groves.) The landscape evokes despair, but the possible vindication of art is that in making something that might endure a little while, all seems maybe not lost, the awful seems like it might be staved off and—for a spell anyway—imagined rescinded. Made to evaporate in the heat of form. This is the secret hope and exaltation at the heart of Cravens’ work: “In my memory, there was no causality. There were not / even characters. Only oranges cascading down a hillside.”

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JESSE NATHAN: How do you think about compression in poems, or its opposite, expansion? Thinking of the first poem in the book, “Leaving,” as opposed to something more chiseled, like “Desire Lines.” Sometimes I think poets are people for whom finding the right word is a matter of life or death. Obsessing about saying it in three words instead of ten.

MADELEINE CRAVENS: I think this is related to what feels to be a fundamental tension for me, in both poetry and in life, between restraint and indulgence. I like to operate on both these levels. I like to go out, I like to be a hedonist, and then I like to have periods of intense monasticism. Both orientations are generative for me. In my poems, I’m interested in the relief of verbalization, of giving in to an impulse, and also in the tension created by obfuscating this urge.

In “Leaving,” I tried to really give in to the music, to let sound control the poem entirely. My job was to get out of the way. And I think the result is a poem that is, as you say, expansive: a poem that carries a feeling of someone breathlessly ranting. In a poem like “Desire Lines,” which is a series of brief fragments, I was trying to remain in control. “Desire Lines” is a poem about, among other things, family dynamics, and what feels most important in that piece is what remains unsaid, what is not overtly named. The sentences are shorter, more declarative. I wanted to create a tonal flatness.

Of these two modes, restraint is a bit more intuitive for me. My friend Maggie described my book as anti-epiphanic and I think that’s apt. And yes, I can often fixate on finding the right word. But I do find that if that becomes a difficult question for me to answer—that of the right word in a phrase or image—the poem itself might be weak. Ideally, the poem becomes itself without too much trouble. And then one can begin to re-arrange, to cut away.

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Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.