Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Thicket

by Kasey Jueds
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021) 

Reviewed by Katherine Indermaur  

Kasey Jueds’ second poetry collection brims with vivacious imagery that encompasses both the enchantment and danger presented by the mysterious natural world. I caught myself returning to the spells cast by these lyrical poems over and over, wanting to steep in this book’s verdant magic as much as fresh air. 

The landscape of The Thicket is one “where the deer / keep their secrets” as much as it is where “winter tenses its solitary muscle, and food // turns scarce.” Elements of the fable and fairytale recur, particularly in reference to the Grimm brothers’ “Little Briar Rose,” often retold now as “Sleeping Beauty.” Throughout the collection, the female speaker’s tender but insistent ethic emerges, one where “nothing at the edge of woods or fall / is meant to be untangled” and still “each softness is kin to the next.” For Jueds, the tangle of this world is what keeps us all looking, and when we are looking together, we can’t help but recognize kinship. 

Perhaps because we are thus implicated in the wilds of The Thicket, familiar spaces appear beyond any fairytale forest. Here, too, is the backyard—the landscaped neighborhood and city streets entangled with abandoned barns and reclaimed meadows. In “Love Poem with No Mountains in Sight,” Jueds writes:

                        A dog barks from streets away
and my heart casts itself past
the tender border her calling makes. As we
are always casting ourselves across edges
and streets, as I once stepped from a curb just when
the icon of the walking figure on the sign began
to pulse, and realized in that second that
I loved you. 

These are the places where we fall in love with one another, the places that hold our first loves and mark us for it. So, too, in “That Far North,” where the speaker breaks out into a rash after having kissed her lover while unknowingly brushing against poison ivy, and is “glad to have . . . / the fire she felt / pressing outward / to make itself known on skin.”  

For a speaker who aims to believe in this ethic she uncovers in the natural world’s profound and apparent entanglement, it is at first surprising how central a role distance plays in these poems. Many depict open spaces, which—while contributing to an abiding sense of calm throughout the work—are not without their difficulty. The speaker is often beckoning, hopeful, as in “The Far Field” (there’s “Far” again): “I could say I do not / know you, don’t understand // what listening I am calling / toward. And still. Come close.” These are places where deer approach close enough for us to note the sun through the translucent edges of their ears, but not close enough to touch. There exists a tension in The Thicket between distance and intimacy, perhaps most memorably depicted in “At Cape Henlopen,” where two lovers embark on a camping trip together:

                                              We walk in light
so steep I can see each single stitch
of your gray sweater, its hem and sleeve; see
for a moment how we’re knitted together
in the wind that keeps tearing us gently from our names.

It takes this distance and the sunlight between them for the speaker to recognize with awe her and her lover’s closeness. It is fitting, then, that Jueds never ultimately disentangles intimacy from distance. This tension is where the sensuality of The Thicket thrives, much like its namesake snarl whose shadow beckons while concealing the thorns we all know are there. 

Jueds also employs repetition toward this sensual effect across the book. A series of five “Litany” poems appear throughout, but Jueds doesn’t limit litany to this series alone. In “Not All the Winds Have Names,” every line begins with the word “body”: “Body of the deep north, the narrow road. / Body remembering: fox in the middle of the harrowed field in a linger of afternoon light.” Such anaphora opens up the realm of the poem to prayer, to magic spell, like the chant inside enchantment. With each iteration of “body,” the text reaches further beyond the page and toward real rhythm, real tongue. It labors to close that distance. 

When The Thicket is at its most lyrical and most pleasurable, it arrives at its most sensual, as in “Of Pink”:

                        You came late
to pink, though pink was always
here. The one who holds
your face in both hands. The one
who says I see you. Nothing silks so. 
Pink of oh. Pink of see-me.
Of labia and lip, of welts
raised by poison ivy on the tender
inlet of wrist.

Jueds has a fantastically skillful ear. Here she builds intimacy by layering vivid imagery atop fricative sound. The way the repeated sibilance in “who says I see you. Nothing silks so” tangles our tongues against our lips is not too far, after all, from any earnest tryst—just far enough for us to see the kinship, and yearn.

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