Jana Prikryl, From the Fields of a Calendar
There are photographs visualized in Jana Prikryl’s first book of poems, The After Party (2016), and these images are not those imagined in her second book of poems, No Matter (2019). The books’ figures and architectures slightly shift their weight, the angle at which they face a viewer as if their various musculatures have stiffened. In The After Party, the poet asks what feels like a question one could only wonder forever ago: “If I say this in the tone of a photograph / will it inject you with the feeling / I felt in that place?” The ubiquity of this single feeling—its experience, material to be injected—abjures the maker from what shaped that feeling in the first place. Injections are functional, designed to a result. More recently, in No Matter, the first-of-two sonnets with the title “Snapshot” pivots with the technology of image: “For accuracy in prophecy perhaps / it helps to be unmoved by beaches. / The digital files speak and decompose.” It might help to be unmoved by beaches, or the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Hudson, though one suspects it’s not enough for an accurate prophecy. In their decomposition, images coded in their digital files do not disappear; they change form.
Prikryl’s third book of poems Midwood is to be published later this year, in August, and anticipating these new poems now, at the start of the year, one returns to what readers know already, the poems in The After Party and No Matter’s pages. The poems that imagine photographs, the making and distribution of images to one or many friends, to strangers, revisit that figurative injection posed in Prikryl’s first collection: a poem is not functional, a poem is something to be experienced in time. A contemporary Dido does not have a pyre built from which Aeneas can watch her death while his ships sail away from Carthage; after their relationship ends, she posts seductive photos for him to see, as in “Insta”: “she’d not forgive him, obviously, but / regroup, restock her selfies, renovate / her city for posting in panorama.” Scrolling through the panoramic iterations of a remade Carthage, one imagines, Aeneas dreams of Dido from the western coast of Italy, from the future that was made for him. The prophecy says Aeneas will marry someone else, Lavinia; the digital files speak, then decompose.
Whether one finds the beach moving is a question of style: how and when these iterations of visually attentive language impress themselves on the poem’s making. The person who articulates many of these poems crosses the street, walks to the bodega in a robe, enters and exits the café and, in doing so, distractedly looks around. Prikryl’s style is one that does not exaggerate the person making these observations, the person who is watching the beach or thinking of injections. “To walk up the street was to be rinsed, / to lean into the current and hear / its drowned voices, hear the one voice just stating the obvious,” reads one of seven poems in No Matter titled “Waves.” That sense of observation—of someone making these observations—is to “hear the one voice just stating the obvious.” The idiomatic “stating the obvious” is seems almost like an off-the-cuff admission: the figurative wave that carries these drowned voices indeed moves that person walking up the street.
The difficulty of stating the obvious is likewise not to be exaggerated; what else is there to do but voice one’s observations, and how often can one do so with precision? Maybe an accurate prophecy is not the task at hand, then, neither for the poet nor those of us who adjacently visualize the metaphorical beach and its metaphorical waves. In another poem, the first of six with the title “Sibyl,” the sibyl refuses to open the pre-war case she carries and, in doing so, communicate her prophecy:
so you can take my word for it
so you can take my word for it
I also am all about abjuring abstraction
I wasn’t about to hand it off to anyone
not even you
I’m no messenger
The poem’s namesake famously predicted what soon would happen: women from antiquity would prophesize the future. Prikryl’s contemporary sibyls forego not only that anticipation but the functional role of intermediary. There are no notable futures to hand off in this poem, and even if there were, the sibyl will not simply deliver them to her listeners. Her work instead is paying attention to what is happening now and what from the past has made now happen.
Perhaps this work is even more appreciable in The After Party, a book that takes place in the moments of immediate and continued recognition from the present, of living memory. Early in the book, in the poem “New Life,” which begins “from the fields of a calendar,” a childhood is imagined and grafted onto the poem’s you, the brother of the person articulating the poem. One notes that the book is dedicated to Voyta Prikryl, who died in 1995. Long after “the yellow bike” and subsequent “seven stitches,” sometime in the hypothetical future, the brother (by way of his sister) begins to think about his new life: “In thinking back you’ll try to invent / the future: you see us growing ancient, / say, twenty-nine, translated / in dad’s shirt and ties.” In the future tense, in the words of his sister, the brother anticipates the rest of his life; this is no future-past nor conditional, that even by its figurative nature his anticipation is immediately felt. Then we shift, from the future and its translation to the present: “It’s the past, when brother and sister / were all footsoles and eyes” Now is the past—the imagined past like real life—from the fields of a calendar where the poem begins.
It doesn’t feel right to say the poems of The After Party take place in a time after-the-fact, after the event. Just as the after party itself is an event that continues into the late evening, into the morning, just as one pauses to remember what has happened, one anticipates what will continue to happen after, finally, the after-party ends. How does one spend that time, that is besides thinking about our own anticipation of the future or of the past changing? Prikryl’s poems recommend working toward that accuracy in observation in the meantime—the only time—in the singular way those observations might be communicated. Elsewhere she writes, “Why did you show us all these things? / What do you bring besides information?” These books do not have information to share, no digital files to be e-mailed, no feeling to be injected. Prikryl’s poems “show us all these things” toward an experience rendered in time, an arrangement on the page to which we return if only to experience, once again, this language.
Prikryl, who is the executive editor of The New York Review of Books, writes poems that refuse the accurate prophecy for the sake of the beach. Both No Matter and The After Party lean into what could be any person’s routine—into the monotonous—to find there a particular way of arranging these architectures and figures one views almost every day. There is always something to see, of course, to remember, though it’s through Prikryl’s method of observation that these images become something to share: “this, it seems to me, is what I’d hoped for / so I grab my camera, / intending to send you the picture.”