BooksWeekend

Finding Oneself in Poetry

The poetry of Ariana Reines outlines a utopian prospect where suffering can be transformed into benevolent light.

Ariana Reines, A Sand Book (image courtesy of Tin House Books)

Ariana Reines has a unique way of inserting herself into her poetry. “I leave / I depart / I quit / I forsake / I abandon / I give up / I let down” she writes in the first poem in her latest collection, A Sand Book. In context, these italicized lines read like an inscription. Conjugating the Latin verb desero (in the above phrases), Reines delicately balance her own identity against the word’s imbricated meanings. In the poems that follow, she fleshes out the experience of selfhood, as it corresponds to the world, more completely than in her previous collections. While her prior books could sometimes read like conceptually icy soliloquies to oblivion, prefiguring the collapse of collectively shared values, with A Sand Book she’s looking out onto the world, addressing its dramatic vistas in a tone absent of irony: that of an “I” addressing a “you.” 

The 12 sections that compose A Sand Book designedly capture the minute particulars of experience, organizing memories, dreams, and reflections under different thematic headings. The poems gathered in the sections “A Partial History of Iridescence” and “Gizzard,” for example, contextualize poetry as a kind of spiritual transcendence opposed to the monotony of social alienation. In “I Had An Idea of Symmetry,” we read:

I had an idea of symmetry

Bordering on theology

That dictated I consume

Darkness in proportion 

To “the world’s” 

The many philosophies 

Celebrating equanimity 

Kindness and happiness 

Propagated by saints 

And sages from Tibet 

And Vietnam and other 

Places felt as yet Incommensurate

To my rage

What strikes me about these lines is the way emotional qualities are rendered substantial: equanimity, kindness, and happiness are all affectively felt attributes that link us to persons or things. Transforming descriptive experience into abstract concepts mirrors the way secular reality dampens the brilliance of miraculous acts.  

Ariana Reines (photo by Julian Talamantez Brolaski)

The “I’ in Reines’s poems is often entrapped, with little more than an attitudinal shift propped by language to translate negative experience into something more thoughtful and life-affirming. In “Sandra,” she writes: 

I’m sitting in a mercy 

The small mercy of an apartment I can’t afford 

Where the cock down the street 

Still crows all afternoon & into the evening 

I’ve been away for months 

Fighting my part of the war 

And because I could not desert my post 

My tongue has dried out 

And no part of my word would cohere 

But put that in the future tense 

Nothing will cohere or gel until I find out how to speak again 

Until I find out whether I can

Here, Reines isn’t alluding to proverbial “writer’s block” so much as poetry’s ambiguous agency as an everyday organizing principle. As a cultivated practice, the negative path of poetry introduces division into the habitual order of experience. Simultaneously, it outlines a utopian prospect where suffering can be transformed into benevolent light. In “Mecum Mea Sunt Cuncta” she writes: 

Through me all the way down, into

The dark. I learned how to say

Thank You in the language

Closed my heavy bag & saw

The sun rise

A Sand Book’s closing opus, “Mosaic,” tessellates many of the themes presented earlier on, punctuating them with mystic finality. The work aphoristically transcribes insights glimpsed in a moment of visionary clarity, when the poet’s mind was flooded with a preternatural light. As she prefaces this section:

The sun began speaking, but not strictly to speak. Thoughtforms were being communicated to me whole, in a didactic and commanding voice that was not literally a voice, insofar as it wasn’t audible to my ear. The voice had no sound, but it communicated its totality into me in a masculine tone — my entire body, my every cell, and every particle of my experience was being reorganized in order to shape and receive each thoughtform, each one delivered into me whole instant by instant, second by second, minute by minute.

These “commands” read like hermetic axioms, intimating the perfected union of humanity, earth, and history. Across some 30 pages, each dictate takes up its own page. The way white letters are foregrounded against a black background lends each statement an oracular quality, as though written out on air: 

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And another page reads:

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To me, this ultimate section of the book is the culmination of all the sprawling forays into dreamlike and experiential detail that precedes it. One could even make the case that “Mosaic” is the ideal limit toward which all the other poems in the book aspire. In this way, the spirituality of Reines’s poetry, which often speaks to the authenticity of mystical experience, comes across much more profoundly than in her previous work. Admirers of Reines won’t be disappointed; and new readers will learn a great deal about the personality shaping her singular poetic voice.

A Sand Book by Ariana Reines (2019) is published by Tin House Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers. 

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