Dishonor your lips with talk

Review of Alexandria by jasmine V. bailey

Carnegie Mellon University Press

 

Following the success of her chapbook, Sleep and What Precedes It, winner of the 2009 Longleaf Press Chapbook prize, it was no surprise to find Bailey’s first full-length book of poetry, Alexandria, to be a mature, well-crafted collection.   

Alexandria does not seem, like so many other first books, to be a compilation of all the pieces the poet has written up to this point that happen to fit nicely between two covers. Rather the collection feels as if it emerged from start to finish in one poignant, pregnant breath, inspired by the fecundity of nature, the mourning that begins exactly the moment before goodbye, and the loss that readies the heart again for future failure and future triumph.  

Bailey leads with the quote, “It stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,/made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,/in a form we have no words for, and you live on it,” from Phillip Levin’s, The Simple Truth, which prepares the reader for truths that are at once personal and universal, but never simple. They’re written into small stories that one couldn’t possibly read without remembering, “…old lovers the mind has worn down like a coast…” of their own, or forgetting, “…one who I once believed would be my children’s father.” 

Levin’s quote is followed by a bit from Constantine Cavafy’s The God Abandons Antony, which mentions the name Alexandria, for which the book, and its closing poem, are titled. “…go firmly to the window/and listen with deep emotion, but not/with the whining, the pleas of a coward…say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.” It feels like a warning, or a disclaimer. To read on is to risk remembering a long-forgotten goodbye, to feel a pang in your gut from a blow you thought you’d recovered from. 

In the first of three sections, Bailey regards her primary subject, a lover, with all the naiveté , hopefulness, and ardor required to flirt with a love that history predicts, although flashing and golden, is sure to bleed into the past like all the rest. These pieces are as gentle and quiet as the opening of a bloom, and as sweet and tender as the first tentative bite into wild fruit. The poems found here are ripe with the imagery of spring and summer, innocent love, and the renewing effects of water, but Bailey foreshadows what’s to come with mentions of letting go and changing seasons. She closes with “My Viardot,” and “Evidence of Autumn.” In “My Viardot,” she writes, “I should count the gray strands/in your hair from between my fingers./Animals should start/at our screams. Something names this/other than love, something so remote/it can be obeyed but not believed./Your body goes to Russia,/the dream of my hands still clutching it,” and as the season changes, so does the emotional and natural terrain in section two, which begins with “Migration,” a poem lamenting the end of summer and how the changing season takes everything in the garden with it.

The struggle present throughout Alexandria is a familiar one, and it makes itself especially apparent in this section. With the knowledge that all things are fleeting and that none of us have a bit of control in this whole mess of life, we live swept along by a tide that only answers to the moon. It brings us in to shore and then, just when we think we’ve got our toes gripped firmly around some plot of sand, it drags us out again without a thought. We just hope that we’ll return again to that same shore, and that the memory won’t fade too quickly, so that we’ll know that shore again next time we see it. In “Delphi,” Bailey describes the detachment necessary to appreciate people, experiences, and places, despite the knowledge that everything is transitory. She does so with a matter-of-factness that feels like acceptance with, “I do not know everything—who and how/you loved in the final tally. I know/ what the trees in front of me are doing…”

The final section in Alexandria pays particular homage to Bailey’s muses and literary coconspirators, and amalgamates ideas from the other two sections to present pieces which range from lush and bucolic, to rife with loss. Lines like, “The gleam of semi-permanence,” “…the lilac will not reopen,” and, “…the winter sunset is briefer than a laugh,” alongside self-conscious lines such as, “…we should have taken pictures/to prove now/it happened,” and, “How to accept all those/we cannot do for:/one man who needs badly/a kiss, another dying/for a good meal,” coalesce in the final, title poem, to insist, with potent imagery, that, as Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay.”  

The first two stanzas of the final poem, Alexandria, assert the futility of striving for legacy: “I wanted to affirm/that all were equally invited/to the world/and my little table in it,/to leave/no bruise upon the grass,” only to unspeak this, that so much of the collection hinges on, in the very last stanza: “New islands will come later,/but it’s the dying ones/I love.” 

Both self-conscious and rebelliously triumphant, Bailey writes in “Hiking the Lake Placid Trail,” “I know a little more than I used to/and I still don’t care if you turn out to be/a common thief.” Attempts to set free are thwarted by the ego, which is compelled to attach and hang on, remember, and keep. Perhaps this is the conflict that every piece of art and writing struggles with. Alexandria begs the reader to consider loosing herself from that needy ego which makes things precious and memories heavy and marries us to them both.