And Not to Break
by Janet Sylvester
(Bordighera Press, 2020)
Of the many brilliant aspects of Janet Sylvester’s poetics in her collection, And Not to Break, most notable is a masterful blend of narrative, imagery, and musicality that shimmers. The poet’s artful elixir of craft captivates readers from piece to piece. In her third collection of poems, Sylvester does what many poets dream of being able to do—flawlessly mix craft and creativity.
Sylvester’s poems immediately synthesize a trifecta of narrative, image, and lyricism, often doing so with a balance between grounded and ethereal descriptions of place and emotion. For example, in the first poem, “Marionette Lines,” Sylvester’s speaker provides longing, loneliness, and location in the span of a few lines: “Tonight it’s better not to look too far. Instead, / I focus on the oval the little Christmas tree, / untrimmed and living still in its green container.” Then, personification intimately places the reader in the same cold room with the speaker as the tree “breathes clear into the window’s icy vapor.” This detailed imagery of the tree performs almost like a muse, inspiring nostalgia in the reader; yet, Sylvester immediately draws us away from “pretty snowflake-shapes” and the “sun / the weatherman assures us is on the way,” and offers a vulnerable assessment of the present moment: “Whatever / I used to know doesn’t matter.”
What follows is a rising dynamic of emotional stakes: “a choking and unsayable distress” that Sylvester elevates with lyricism. In the last stanza, a physician is “lightly stroking / the little finger of the left, my writing hand, / in its ligament an indecipherable ache.” The meticulous content combined with the alliteration of “lightly,” “little,” “left,” and “ligament” accentuates the complexity of the speaker who painfully creates. A presumed arthritis in the speaker’s hands, and the lovely alliteration, suggest the speaker’s position—she is a poet experiencing professional disappointment that aging hands only compound. Sylvester herein accomplishes a smooth combination of poetic craft and expert account.
The poet continues to entice the reader with another seamless marriage of image and narrative in the first lines of the prose-style poem “Marais Des Cygnes (mare-uh-duy zeen)”: “Ralph, the closest neighbor on the road, hoisted a can of beer and / scanned his rabbits.” The reader visualizes the “car seat spewed innards” and “the picnic table beside the burr oak, dogs moved; catfish heads dangled / from its branches.” Sylvester divulges much about the people in the poem, but does so with such vivid images that the reader wants to know more.
And Sylvester does not disappoint, creating lyrical lines that allow one to meet people through all the senses. In the second stanza, we learn about “Ralph’s hand, Rex’s hand, Pearlie’s, greased black to their / shirtsleeves, neatly rolled” and “her palm above a century of footprints.” Sylvester’s narrative-natured poems work masterfully as story, but also excel with their obvious abundance of lyricism: “downstream a doe and fawn fording the Marsh of Swans” and “sharp- / toothed gar idling in its currents.” The poet grounds the reader through these expert elements of craft.
Likewise, in the autobiographical vulnerability of “Ragged Man,” the author pulls the reader into quantum telepathy, a tragic ex-husband, and alcoholism in the span of five stanzas without the reader having to question, even for a moment, whether they’re vested in the narrative. At the start, the poet creates intrigue:
Attention’s seed-pearl strand
snaps between eye and mind, I’m looking out
when reading, not down and through,
as I did in Virginia …
Within these lines, one wonders why the perspective of the speaker snaps as it does, like tiny pearls, and why it changed from how it was in Virginia. Sylvester explains within the intensely specific imagery of the poem that harkens back to the delicate nature of life passing by too quickly: “My last image of you—dun / overcoat, hair a shade too long, your eyes / blinking hard, as I tipped my umbrella down.” The last stanza also expresses the fragility of existence; we can’t help but feel the painful nostalgia of the speaker:
I clicked on a page, gone now, devoted to
Maria Callas, in resplendent grief, singing
an aria from Butterfly, I think, out of tinny
speakers and there, clear as notes on a score,
your dates, 1948–2007, “always in my heart.”
Sylvester finishes the braid of narrative and imagery by combining the universal emotion with the grief unique to this poem: “Stay in touch, we say, / when we’re afraid someone will travel great / distances through what separates us, and they do.”
Sylvester also hauntingly charms the reader with her expert world-building in the poetic realm with “Blue Dress Video,” a poem that explores the tumultuous life of the author Vladimir Nabokov. The reader sees him “in knickers and a flat cap” as he:
… poses on a rocky summit,
his net, long-handled, balanced in the crook of one arm.
It is 1957. Small butterflies, he writes, all of a kind,
settled on a damp patch of sand.
The drama of the rocky summit joined with the net, which alludes to the predatory nature of this more persona-based poem, make the last lines of the final stanza even more jarring: “open, a needle of glass, a whipstitch / instant—you little tease.” Sylvester shocks, here, with her ability to blend setting and emotion into undeniably compelling imagery.
The same poetic world-building emerges in “Breakwater,” but Sylvester’s lyrical control shifts to wavy quatrains of lines, mostly consisting of nine, ten, or eleven syllables:
The Manufactory of copper paint,
locked above its sum of antique pollutions,
and Ten Pound Island gulls, were quiet,
stubbed like push-pins on a windward beach.
Sylvester’s exploration of whales and birds is allusive, lyrically, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or narratively, of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as the speaker encounters a Carolina warbler’s violent “plummet into the boat.” The small bird attempts to upright itself “around a pony tail,” or with a “balance on a sandal,” and we feel the helplessness of the speaker being “Admonished not to touch it, we were instructed / that northeast gales had forced it // for days above the water.” The heightened emotion, syntax, and diction all come together in a single, breathtaking line: “breaking as a covenant once did, // sudden, brutal in the down-rush, beautiful.”
In “Unbinding,” Sylvester builds narrative in a less traditional but just as effective manner. The poet paints her relationship with her mother through a series of snapshot-like prose poems. The twenty-seven sections of “Unbinding” highlight Sylvester’s eclectic style and poetic talent. The piece collects the speaker’s familial moments through a loose, temporal construction, starting in the seventeenth century in the first section, “1 Mitochondrial”: “Pollen eddies in air, lilies sing beside a / stone fence mapped with moss” moving into more recent time, as in section four, “4 1947,” where the speaker has “a last-minute date for dinner and dancing at the best hotel in town.” The poet takes us through these images of a lifetime in a less straightforward manner, and then delights the reader with how the collective narrative is built: a “brittle newspaper clip,” “the snake’s spermatic head,” or “plumes of steam, / she’d never live to see.”
The sections’ titles add to the atmospheric qualities and produce an eerie feel. For example, “Choking” follows “6 Hat, continued,” and all in third-person perspective. One title juxtaposes against the other. Together, these images and sections are dreamlike and subliminal, yet demonstrate the speaker’s complex awareness of her mother in fantastically radical pops of prose.
Sylvester seems to acknowledge the abstract narrative elements of “Unbridled” by following with the villanelle “Field Glasses.” In this poem, the poet brings the reader back to a focus on musicality within a more direct setting. This is particularly pronounced in the form’s required refrain by how it includes the word “refrain”: “Though birdsong shelters in the word refrain, / that stallion, several mares and pair of foals / the water meadows utter, stand in rain.” This seems to imply that now the refrain is, in fact, the location for the birds’ music, finding shelter within it. Emotional undercurrents, which And Not to Break weave magically throughout, shine dramatically in the foreground in “Field Glasses”: “I know that loss has nothing left to gain / today from me. I’m made of parts and holes, / personified as standing water in the rain.” The rhythmic element contributes to the vulnerable content.
The reader enjoys a similar musicality in “Tu Shu and the Pear Tree”: “In peridot and yellow grass, in a xeroxed / photograph, one cedar at his right, healthily / greening.” Late in the poem, the ear gives way to all the senses in lines such as “live now in your grin, moist even in digital / reproduction, pink-tongued, open to take in / that lofty-scented incense and the musk.” Imagery craftily marries sound in each line.
In “Sea Smoke,” Sylvester develops context for the reader in a fanciful motion of lineation. This second-person poem double indents every two to three lines and thereby uses the white space to create the breath alluded to in the title:
Frost on a window, indistinguishable from roses
knotted into a curtain, burning
as blue dawn drains into it
from the backyard apple, its parabola
In subtle answer, another line seems to nod subconsciously to the author’s ability to weave together elements of poetic craft:
Past the Square that plows
have already heaped into drifts,
you slide onto the bridge
and—how can it be worded—the braiding tensions of the current,
the light the world flows inside,
have turned to precious metals.
“How can it be worded” cuts to the heart of the poet’s task—how to navigate the “tensions” and “currents” of life’s ups and downs, to weave them together. All this, Sylvester realizes:
Every register of platinum
and rose gold issues into
the frigid channel, coaxed
by sun into thermal plumes, bright steam cooling to droplets
The final poem of the collection, “Prologue,” returns to first person, a befitting gesture, given the detailed, personal nature of many of the works in this collection. However, Sylvester gives the reader everything they need to balance the confessional aspects because she provides the universal in the personal. This balance results in the poet’s unique brand of lyricism: “Last night we fell asleep before the end / of the world,” and “We opened the door to the porch / that hot ghost had pressed against for so long.” Sylvester’s poems are specific, unique, and planetary all at once. The entire collection manages to engage, shock, entertain, and sing exactly as the title suggests—without breaking the reader’s attention or rapture. And Not to Break is an expert blend of storytelling within the enchantment of lyricism and imagery.