Texas Tech University Press, 2017
[Editor’s note: Cassie Pruyn will read with Ben Aleshire at Saturn Bar (3067 St. Claude Avenue) at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 11, 2017.]
It is inarguably a good thing—and in no way detracts from Cassie Pruyn’s debut collection—that Lena does not quite live up to its title. Secrecy, death, and desire are ingredients of the sensational, and they consort poorly with the measure and interiority for which Pruyn’s eponymous beloved was perhaps differently known until the publication of this collection. It might be better to say Lena is Pruyn’s inquiry into the reticence of our first queer experiences—a retrospective arrangement of privacies and halted utterances, along with an empathetic speculation on the promptings for this reticence that animates Pruyn’s self-interrogation and entire project.
“Don’t carry it to someone else this time,” Robert Frost’s aggrieved wife says responsively to her husband in “Home Burial.” “Tell me about it if it’s something human. / Let me into your grief.” The tension of Frost’s lengthy poem is inseparable from its verbosity—there’s a great deal left unsaid, in much the same way Pruyn’s first poem, “Lena’s Summer House in Rockport,” presents a voiceless past where intimacy, of whatever stripe, is immediately upended. “From somewhere along Route 127 / Lena’s mother approached. // A neighbor had spotted our car,” Pruyn writes. Positioned in a recalled raft, floating outside this “shingled house,” Lena, “all skin,” is nonetheless accorded the poem’s final “nervous” and sheet-folded moment. Pruyn’s reconstruction of this place, this moment, unevenly distributes a type of figurative agency: Lena’s mother simply approaches; Lena “soon taste[s] the salt of the sea lapping,” for instance. An easy way to signal and re-present the richness, or poverty, of power and optics among characters in the coming pages, Pruyn’s sparing figurations in this first poem are crucial for understanding how she disentangles Enlightenment-rooted conceptions of embodiment from the memories and amorous feelings they too often colonize.
It is hard to re-present an adolescent experience as an adult, and harder, in that concentrated effort and emotional tumult, to determine how much of the story should be told without you being in it. Poems like “The Mother,” which declaratively introduces an inpatient Lena photographed with her mother pre-operation “lying in a hospital bed in a white gown next to her mother…and Lena’s mother…gazing at me with rage,” or the ending of “Eight Truths and a Lie:” “or when I left her, all at once, without warning, / and felt nothing but relief.” To my initial point, this is ultimately a book about Pruyn, which is to say Lena is a book-length grappling with deficiency, how memory refuses to operate, and the intrinsic essentialism of these failures to the relationships that otherwise compel us to write, and revise, each memory into its most perfect incompletion. Why should Lena posture as mere biography when it has seared its speaker into a new epistemology, where rationalism is a performance and the past is a history of mediations, surveillance, to which self-scrutiny must lend some part if honesty—as both formal and narrative presentation—is ever possible?
“Traveler’s Monologue,” opening the second section of Lena, reads:
I am a Maine farmhouse. A hunkering cape.
I am the farmhouse, haunted and haunting.
I am the armchair in the wood-stove room of the farmhouse, in
I once discovered the most complete of all moments,
tilting my head against the wing-backs.
Pruyn asks a simple question: what moment is complete? The poem continues with its anaphora (“I am…”), whose length reveals the bankruptcy of self it would otherwise be designed to conceal. “What self is complete, or the most complete?” is a low-hanging corollary in Pruyn’s monologue; rather, from where does the impulse to distract, or cover, this otherwise productive incompletion come? Is this an answer we could withstand?
If I knew I’d tell you.
Am I the cancer or the anti-cancer?
Neither. Don’t be self-centered.
The self here, as in “Elegy for a Room,” is a surprising site for construction. The poem’s negating language presents one of Pruyn’s central concerns in Lena: why is foregrounding, or exploring the boundaries of empathy, bad? “Self-Interrogation” trades in the same self-articulation as “Traveler’s Monologue,” moving Pruyn’s speaker away from a concern about what she does or doesn’t know regarding Lena’s burial, to the poem’s concluding memory:
Where is her body?
Napping in your arms, little
blonde machine, whirring
The poem allows itself to remain frustrated, located in the tense of things ongoing. From “Twenty Minutes at the Clam Shack:” “…she pulls / me toward her, whispering / Come here like she’d snatched up / a pocketknife and sliced / a sliver in the day just for me.” What else are these poems, these memories, but slivers taken from someplace—not stolen, or even taken with a knife, but toward the end of pulling together, each sliver itching the other its tips, each tip whispering what we’ve been trying to say for years.