Emerging Poet: On Gillian Kiley
"The Lost World"
Gillian Kiley's work bears the stamp of authenticity and a clearly individuated imagination. At a time when many poets seem to spend almost as much time marketing and promoting their work as actually writing, Kiley's poetry illustrates the rewards of purposely withdrawing from the public eye. She reminds us that poetry requires solitude and a degree of unworldliness (meaning receptivity—not to be confused with spirituality); the poet who finds some shelter from commerce and composes out of necessity is more likely to resist literary fashion and eschew facility in favor of urgency and difficulty.
Kiley's just-completed book-length elegy Palisades meditates on her father's death and dwells ambitiously and unflinchingly in such difficulty. Kiley's approach never sensationalizes nor sentimentalizes her subject. She refuses the utopian clichés of healing and closure, those heroic fantasies of repressing legacy and family history; instead, she confronts the primitive familial imprints that shadow and tug on our adult selves in order to shake them loose and re-configure them. The death of a parent—whatever chapters it may close—also forces the adult child to acknowledge that what has been broken, what has been loved or unloved, can no longer be fixed or reconciled. During the poem's journey, she changes the lens on the camera several times over: of course her own world changes after her father's death, but so does her view of the world at large; with heightened consciousness, she becomes more of a spectator and an outsider to the indifferent universe she must re-enter. There's no place for her or her grief in our culture. In the face of this exile, she comes to terms with a rootless and routinized America that displaces and represses, that substitutes materialism and the homilies of quick fixes in place of love and compassion.
As an artist, Kiley recognizes the limits of the so-called lyric "I" representational confessional poem; she knows, though many still try, we can no longer unselfconsciously write those Plath and Lowell family poems without flaunting victimization or becoming so self-absorbed that we make the world a smaller, diminished place. For Kiley, the self is no longer the Romantic center of the universe. Moreover, she honors almost as second nature that experience itself is elusive: our feelings seem less subject to the causal logic of narrative and chronos than they do to Heisenberg-like lyric flashes that expand or contract and can't be fully contained or grasped.
Early in the poem, with wide-ranging diction, her speaker makes this highly associative self-assessment with a book inside the book:
Club, halo, coil, scar.
Daughter, good daughter,
What mark of office? Perhaps the truest self
is the one irritated—irradiated?—
by the misapplications of others.
The most salient
being complete dispatch.
Given those values and her commitment to emotional exploration, Kiley moves back and forth between the representational and splintered collage, between feeling and idea, between the lost soul and the world. She probes a history without ever turning away from its terror or consequence but makes no grandiose claims for universal wisdom.
Gillian Kiley has a wonderful imagination: she displays an almost virtuoso capacity to make disparate connections; she's a master too, as in the above passage, in her painterly sensitivity to the tonal effects of diction. In the course of a sentence, she can seamlessly move from the ironic (the flat, matter-of-fact discourse of daily life) to the heightened shorthand of the lyric. Her wide-ranging metaphors and similes traverse the daily and the surreal. Again, early in the book in a theater, which itself serves as a metaphor for public space, the speaker makes this rhetorical claim when taking flight from social consolation:
I have my own kind
my still-point, and am unpersuaded
by the conditioning programs offered up,
the parade of wagons full of tonics
and all the antic remedies.
None of the hawkers
came to the funeral.
. . .
to be in reasonable darkness.
So like a brother, really.
The passage is both very smart and terribly sad. Thus Kiley pushes against the limits of expression and silence in a structure that resembles, echoes, and revises another book-length project, William Carlos Williams's Paterson. In Kiley's work, though, the city no longer represents the modernist utopian dream, no longer reflects the mind as the pinnacle of making. Rather it reflects the contemporary world where we often reside: isolated, often alienated and invisible to others. We are left to internalize not only our own families but also a culture that hypocritically valorizes and claims to uplift the individual.
The monument doesn't flex
and I visit it,
speak a little, wonder if the trees
regard me, like officers at a depot.
Whisper, disclose, entreat,
send private emissaries
out of the ducts of my body.
Amid the rest,
the open plots
lend a sense of anticipation.
Who hears what I say?
A vision like Kiley's refuses to seduce the reader, so it is difficult to sell to a culture that seeks out surface (the upbeat), that effaces unmediated loss. Our literary culture too has a short attention span: thus, we find very few successful book-length projects from younger poets. But to forgo this journey is to forego the rewards of truly looking into the pleasures and limits of language, the pleasures and limits of looking at our histories while refusing wish-fulfillment fantasies. Palisades is a genuine poetic accomplishment, ambitious and heartfelt, a project that I think would make many of us feel less alone with our own grief and losses; its craft, full of surprises and transformations, offers to help us change, indicates that as readers we're in the hands of someone who has both command of the language and an intelligence to shape it.