Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s poetry plays with setting and situation, inverting the everyday with an uncommon, often unsettling ease. Her third and newest collection, Dolefully, A Rampart Stands, manages some strange, arresting lines, accretions of imagery, and sharp language. Take, for instance, these two stanzas from “Springtime in America”:
Men continue to work so they might continue
to work—weekends, the only time to rest
on a shore of tangleberry and hacklebush—
sleep through the twigs scribbling over soft flesh.
I was asleep through the scratching, still,
I heard the dogs. You know those dogs?
I heard the shape of their need like black plastic ballooning
over the garden bed, like men and their whistles trilling.
These lines are admirable for their buoyancy and noise, and how they nimbly avoid paraphrase. I’m generally skeptical of notions like “the shape of their need”— this collection occasionally humors such abstractions—but it’s hard to argue with the image of those men and their needless labor, the dogs we’re somehow supposed to know, and the coming-to-life that spring portends, which may well sound like “whistles trilling.” There’s also the play of “tangle” and “hackle,” which look and sound like nonsense words (to my knowledge there are no such plants as “tangleberry” or “hacklebush”), and thus prefigure the “scribblings” of the following line, like brambles overtaking the stanza’s otherwise conventional architecture.
There’s much to admire in this collection. Lines like “bedewed heifer stock-still in a particular pasture” (“The Grandmothers”) and “dolefully a rampart stands, but how does she lie?” (“Made to Lie Down in Green Pastures”) make a poem worth reading, if not savoring. A good run (or two) keeps the book afloat. Here’s a sample:
The stars do not eat my breakfast.
A man eats my breakfast. Like the stars
he cannot take care of me very well,
But oh does he burn.
I like this stanza’s invective, the fact of our speaker’s cosmically and comically inadequate paramour. It’s funny, and kind of sad. The best poem in this collection, “Folding Chairs,” is less funny, and ends like this: “I am afraid // I will continue to burn the supper. I am afraid / I have not made enough for everyone.” This is a poem of personal inadequacy, harrowing stuff; the echo in “I am afraid” bites deep.