In Liliana, the first section of Allison Seay's debut collection To See the Queen, the word “figment” appears enough to create a recursive rhythm. Typically appended to “of the imagination,” the word feels lost without the phrase, and is thus perfect fodder for poetry. Seay’s figment is malleable. It is first Liliana, but a ghost-self, something to be seen only if “I am still enough.” That figment “vanishes, / as God does,” but “returns in a different form — / this time as an avalanche, a ledge of snow, slipping / from the roof of a warehouse into / even more snow.” The narrator will tell this figment, this woman, this God that “slipping off / into some indistinguishable state” is “one way of living.” To live as a figment is to be without fixed form.
The collection is comfortably open and curious. That Seay selects the essence of doubt as the nexus of her poetry speaks to a simultaneous distrust and love for language. A lesser poet might choose sides, as to not appear flimsy. Instead, Seay can write, in “Her Hair, Before It Is Pinned” that “I did not believe in God,” only to follow pages later in “The Sadness” that
when I am
on the brink, God becomes a crystal song, a hymn
in the piano’s high octaves. Or God is the smell
of apple soap in the morning rooms or the feel
of sun on a horse’s back, pure and kind.
The narrator who offers each poem in this collection looks into the mirror and knows “there is no answer.” Such doubt is reassuring. Pity the poet who moves in absolutes; better to spin language and keep one’s fingers crossed. Seay’s confidence in her lines allows her to weave a narrative across poems that does not require fictive causality. Liliana comes and goes. She is body, she is soul, she is figment: “she was the fever; / she was the ocean.”
The first ten poems of the collection contain, in unequal number, four references: God, snow, Liliana, figment. “Late Apology” is the first poem to move in another direction, as “queen” refigures Liliana without replacing her. In “Liliana, the Lion,” she is both a figment and an “animal calmed.” The narrator is a “child again.” Later, in “Sick Room,” the figment “is inside me or is myself.”
Although her mode was fiction, Flannery O’Connor wrote that “I hope that to be of two minds about some things is not to be neutral.” She might have defined poetry in those words. Seay’s ability to give form to ambiguity without showing the outline’s edges reflects the wonderful work of Alison Stine, another poet, it should be noted, who is equally willing to speak of God in personal terms. In Stine’s “Palms,” a hand-holding couple observes the faithful on Palm Sunday: “The congregation / links without touching on the grass, / their hands occupied with light.” She moves from the supernatural work of faith to the equally supernatural work of love: “I am / trying to explain how I trust you.” For Stine, love returns with seasons, but it can also disappear, “the way the bees returned / to the farm from summer” until “they / do not return, you will know they are dead, / disease sweeping the husks like wind / lifting the hair of a girl.” Love can shrivel, “brown and curled,” like the palms, but love will not die. Like the palms that will “be burnt and returned / to the body” for the Ash Wednesday practice of “black on each forehead,” love might take a new form. Yet Stine, like Seay, wonders. It might not.
At the end of the first section of To See the Queen, it is unclear what the narrator wants to focus on, but that instability makes each successive poem necessary. “House Fire,” the first poem of the next section, lasts the length of a held breath. “She” is without antecedent. It might be Liliana, but she has passed from human form to a near-God: “she sits in the soot,” surrounded by a “fire that looks like a mouth / that is trying to swallow too much.” A man is introduced here. He asks the narrator to marry him, but “can / barely make out—a figment tearing toward him.” This man passes away, his memory stings: “Once in a park I loved you down as a whore / and if they saw us then the people ignored.” She is shamed but not ashamed. This man becomes all men. The one “hauling hay” or “holding shears.” The man on a ladder or working under a car. He who chops wood, slogs through gravel, swats a fly. He who is everything and nothing: no thing, no God.
And then Seay, while lolling the reader into near-hymn with her recursive language, hits with “Devil Town,” which appears a few pages beyond the book’s halfway mark. A man is dead: his “lips were cemented and he was strange-colored — / mango bark or wheat”— and his hands are on his stomach, where the bullet had entered. The strange scene is complemented by something stranger, the refracted world observed by a narrator who watches a hysterical woman through glass. The woman shakes her hair as a blackbird lands near her. The woman “swept her heel across the slate in front of her.” It was not a kick; rather, a “dismissal.” The bird is gone, the poem is over, and the wound remains. The poem’s whispers remind a reader of Traci Brimhall’s “Fiat Lux,” in which sisters talk about a dead chickadee, its eyes eaten. One sister knows ants enter through the eyes: “the soft ocular / cells are the easiest way into the red feast of heart, / liver, kidney.” The sister continues her narrative. The ants not only eat the bird, they become the bird. They see “the blue bowled sky, the patchwork / of soybean fields and sunflowers.” The ants want a mate. They become the queen, who dreams of chickadees until “the visions begin to waver, / and the colony goes mad,” knowing they will never be birds, only ants. They “twitch in their sleep, trying to make out the distant / boatman lifting his lantern, his face disfigured by light.”
That Seay brings to mind Stine and Brimhall speaks to a certain method of connection: the poetic confidence to open the moment in a form of folk transformation. Each poet is concerned with a form of reincarnation. Seay’s narrator is changed, but also completes the action of the collection’s title. “She” is the queen. She visits the narrator during sickness, and the mere sight of her brings about peace. Yet she quickly leaves, and the final section sees the return of the figment. Here “Liliana returns in different forms / each one immortal.” A pair of late poems—“Room of Held Breath” and “Room of the Curved Spines”—dramatize Liliana and the narrator as sisters. They stage their drowning before rescuing each other, but then sometimes choose the silence of floating, a “womb / quieting our unquiet minds.” Love halved can still be whole, and these sisters are lovers in the truest sense. This womb is their return to being one. It occurs during their final summer of youth, when their eyes are “like opals.”
To See the Queen continues for a few poems beyond “Room of Held Breath,” but this poem is the perfect encapsulation of such a blurry world. The two sisters are in love before “the world’s beautiful torture began— / the resurface, the sting, the coming / back gasping, mouth-high.” The result is much like the reader after finishing this book: like a body out of water, it will remain wet and marked, longing for that cool, new feeling again. Not for the clarity of the absolute, but for the salve of poetry’s unknown, a world in which God is both figment and figure, and, comfortable in that unknowing, we might find solace while “laughing in the well.”
Nick Ripatrazone's books include a novella, This Darksome Burn, and a forthcoming collection of stories, Good People. He lives with his wife and twin daughters in New Jersey.
To See the Queen
Persea Books, 2013
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 0892554231