Carnegie Mellon University Press: 2014
Review by Chelsea Wagenaar
Jasmine Bailey’s debut book of poems, Alexandria, memorializes lost place, lost love, and lost self. The poems are short and lyrical, each a beautiful thing that has been chiseled down to its essentials. The poems talk to myth and history, they travel to other countries, they return to close-by cities. The speaker in these poems has an acute sense of how her own loves play out in a larger literary and mythical scope of lovers. In “Days of Aggressive Geese” she writes, “sometimes you were Dante and sometimes / you were Beatrice.” She understands the intensely personal and painfully collective human experience of loss that makes it both her own and not at all (from “Dreaming in January”: “Nothing new in this. Nothing new ever.”)
Though the poems are infused with loss, they are not loudly elegiac or mournful, nor are they filled with tempests of regret or lamentation. The speaker in these poems has moved beyond mourning and toward wisdom and the confusion of what it is to accept loss. She wants to hold it up, look at it, understand it. The tone is wistful, contemplative, acquiescent. In the first poem, “Archipelago,” Bailey writes,
You have come into and out of my life
like a needle knitting me to the earth.
Here and not here, rising and diving.
[. . .]
Why march down to the road
and travel it? I don’t know. We must accept
To wish to be beautiful is
how it removes you from the world.
Then again, how not to wish for it,
even knowing that, when he turns,
I cannot convince you
there is only one loss,
but I think you will know it.
[. . .]
And I know there’s one loss
travelling the continents
like a glamorous actress.
At each last wonder she can be seen
sipping espresso, looking at nothing.
She fools some people with her sunglasses,
always changing her name.
In these poems, Bailey allows imagination to be the agent that orders memory and experience. Even when negotiating loss, the imagination’s resilience insists on beauty—on making it, keeping it. The poet is, above all, besotted with beauty. And the poems turn toward imagination as a consolation—in the absence of the beloved, the imagination can be sufficient. In “Sugar Hollow,” the poet commands,
Tally the damages of our parting this way:
go to a swimming hole and take off your clothes.
Do this because I want to imagine you [. . .]
Sometimes what I know is no longer true
and there’s no way to tell when
the truth changed or why an airplane
high enough can be the sound of crocuses.
Perhaps the desire I find most moving in these poems, though, is the desire to be both the witness of beauty and beauty itself. It’s a way of asking to be lover and beloved, the one who beholds and the one who is beheld. It’s a hope to be kept and reassembled in the beloved’s imagination as he is in hers. In “Gold Dust,” she writes,
[. . .] majesty is the independence
of things from our little striving.
I witnessed it as it ran
through my fingers:
The amaryllis grows into a long, green sickle
the shade holds up. To be made useful,
elegant this way, supporting the weight
of something grown beyond its control.
To be the window that frames this, on one side
the shade and leaf, on the other the theater of trees.
To be a place where two worlds never cease
looking at each other.