Saudade, Season, Space: Chrissy Kolaya’s OTHER POSSIBLE LIVES

by Eric Morris-Pusey

About halfway through reading Chrissy Kolaya’s second poetry collection, Other Possible Lives, I found myself grasping for a word I couldn’t quite remember. It was one of those so-called “untranslatable” words, a concept from another language that doesn’t have an exact English equivalent, like the German sehnsucht or Japanese mono no aware—except that it wasn’t either of those.

I was loath to set the book down, but I felt I had to find the word in order to get across a certain feeling in this review. If only I’d turned the page before turning to Google: all along, the word was waiting in Kolaya’s next poem, “The Most Beautiful Word in the World.”

Saudade: Portuguese for a type
of longing

“The Most Beautiful Word in the World” is built around a variety of these untranslatable words, and a few that have been more fully adopted into English (saboteurconcertina). But saudade, that particular type of longing, akin to nostalgia but somehow both deeper and wider than that, is not just an intrinsic part of this poem: it’s the essence of Other Possible Lives.

The poems in this book vary widely in subject, but almost all of them—and certainly all of them taken together—create a feeling of saudade for the eponymous other possible lives, the alternate paths that any of us could have taken. It’s nostalgia, but not always for an actual past: rather, it’s for different presents that could have resulted from a slightly changed past.

In “Again,” the past, the present, and a possible future are all intermixed and juxtaposed with a deft control of tense, a blending of possibility and reality:

Your plane
rises safely into the buoyant air
and my bed
is empty
when I return home
without you.

Maybe next year
we will have a small house
and a dog we are trying to train
not to leave us

This appreciation of and longing for alternate possibility is not always simple: Kolaya’s speakers don’t only imagine better possible lives, but the difficulty and pain that arises no matter one’s circumstances or choices—and the moments of hope and beauty present even in the midst of that.

One way in which Kolaya creates and maintains moods of saudade is with images of seasonal change. The poem “Camellias” is a perfect example: the central image of three of the poem’s four sections is of camellias folding in on themselves to survive a frost, being wrapped in blankets by a neighbor, finally reopening: “then open, / then open again, / infinite rose.”

The seasonal images are tied into human events and the human psyche as in the poems of Ellen Bryant Voigt and Jorie Graham. The third section of “Camellias” refers to the neighbor’s son’s suicide. This puts the final image of the flowers blooming in a more violent light, but it also allows for beauty to arise from the mother’s resilience and the son’s memory—it’s not just that terror and beauty are juxtaposed, but that they necessarily blend with each other.

Along with the use of seasonal diction and imagery to present us with Kolaya’s view of the natural world and ideas on the passage and cyclical nature of time, the setting deeply informs the poems and serves as a reflection of speakers’ and characters’ inner worlds as well as the reality of their outer one.

In “The House Sitters,” the sequence that originally appeared in last year’s Awards issue of Nimrod and now opens Other Possible Lives, the central character is looking after someone else’s home with a romantic partner. The feeling of disconnection from and curiosity about the house mirrors a disconnection from the man she’s with, but Kolaya goes beyond just that, imparting a feeling of transience to all the relationships and states of being in the poem: “the second husband [of the homeowner] is dying of cancer”; “[the man] says something about the temperature that means he might love her, at least for the evening”; “hers is a dream life, borrowed.”

Kolaya’s eye for detail and skill at creating and maintaining a mood are on full display in “The House Sitters,” which wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the book. Even the dogs are a bit desperate and unfulfilled:

One morning they watch a deer creep out of its hiding place, the lab bounding off, the wolfhound galumphing after her in his strange sideways canter, a misguided belief he might catch something so quick.

That “misguided belief,” and the degree to which belief might be misguided, are central to the book as well. Though the poems are nearly always present in a physical space, Kolaya’s speakers also live in imagined worlds (or possible worlds) and we’re often not explicitly told which is the “real” one. The book’s fifth and final section is fittingly titled “Alternate Endings,” and flights of fancy that might also be prescience, like the earlier selection from “Again,” are common throughout the book.

This creates the same kind of complicated duality that the juxtaposition of the suicide and the flowers do in “Camellias,” but on a larger scale: though this book is often concerned with regret and disappointment in the world and its people, there is also a fierce hope and a willingness to imagine something better—and this is further complicated by the fact that the imagination itself is human, and therefore flawed.

One of the collection’s most fascinating examples of this is the poem “Safe Conduct,” which relates, in second person, the story of a “sweet-faced girl” who buys a baseball bat at a secondhand sporting goods shop and carries it around town: “a tremendous bargain— / bright red paint / on old chipped wood.” It imbues her with a sense of power both transcendent and terrible:

The ladies in the dress shop
you stop into
can’t help but stare, imagining
you wielding the bat, fleeing
with armloads of sundresses.

Walking home,
a friend heading toward you on the street,
you hide it behind your back. She
will be delighted, you think. Red paint

bright as fresh blood.

The complexity of its themes, beauty of its images and metaphors, and clarity of its language—along with an often subtle sense of humor—make Other Possible Lives a delightful read. Kolaya creates a world in which, as she ends the last poem “The Right Track,”

It was about to happen.

was about to happen.


Chrissy Kolaya

Other Possible Lives was released October 21, 2019, by Broadstone Books.






Eric Morris-Pusey’s poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Noble-Gas Qtrly, and Driftwood Press, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. He lives across from a vacant lot in Columbia, Missouri, with his partner, poet Grace Gardiner.

The Growing Pains of Building a Better Poetry Canon

by Colin Pope

In case you missed it, the most recent poetry kerfuffle centered on an essay by Bob Hicok originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review in 2018 and reprinted by the UTNE Reader this summer. Hicok, a lauded and highly accomplished poet, acknowledges and laments the changing face of American poetry. The essay—grandiloquently titled “The Promise of American Poetry”—contains such statements as, “Under-represented poets are creating a large and dynamic public space,” while also admitting, “In American poetry right now, straight white guys are the least important cultural voices.” His readership is shrinking, and he feels this may be due, in part, to his straight-white-maleness (and how his poetry often revolves around concerns pertinent to that demographic). The essay posits that, as poetry grows more diverse, so does its readership, which presents a concern not in ideology—Hicok clearly endorses the diversification of poetry—but in import, prestige, and sales for individual straight w.m. poets. Overall, the essay reads, to me, like a mixed message written from a privileged place; he wishes he maintained a loftier position in the public sphere, but he knows his loss of reputation means the poetic canon is actively moving toward a more informed consciousness that will better the canon for future generations.

While there is a progressive message in this essay, Hicok’s contextualizing this message around his shrinking readership and reputation justifiably irritated critics. Notably, Timothy Yu, in The New Republic, posits that Hicok’s piece is “wrong not in its emotions, but in its analysis.” Yu then goes on to provide examples of how Hicok is incorrect, citing VIDA statistics, majority-white winners of recent Pulitzer Prizes, and specific books by poets from historically marginalized backgrounds. At the end of the essay, Yu notes, “Because Hicok is so afraid that writers of color are bent on his destruction, he seems not really to have heard them, nor is he able to see them as fellow workers in a widening prospect of American literature.” I wouldn’t say anything in Hicok’s essay portrays him as “afraid that writers of color are bent on his destruction,” but Yu’s response is representative of an important part of this discussion.

One of the issues with this conversation, as a whole, is that it’s so new we don’t exactly know how to approach it. I myself am conflicted about the need for such a conversation, even while listening for its implications about the cultural moment we live in. I’ve been interested in demographic representation in the canon for a while now—and published a study in The Millions on The Norton Anthology of American Literature earlier this year. Like Hicok and Yu, I acknowledge that the poetic canon is moving in a positive direction. And, like both, I recognize that there are certain growing pains that will involve confronting my own and other people’s limited perception of poetry.

The path toward “correcting” the overwhelmingly white and male poetic canon will feel like overcorrection to some poets, and Yu is correct to point this out to Hicok and the rest of us. Poetry publishers are aggressively pursuing a more diverse array of new books, and prize committees have noted the need to support young and upcoming poets from marginalized backgrounds. Indeed, this is a recent phenomenon, and building a better canon often begins at the level of emerging poets. To support new, diverse poets is to support a trend toward the longevity of such a poetry. A quick inspection of the winners over the last three years of three major American poetry first-book prizes—the Walt Whitman Award, the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, and the Yale Series of Younger Poets—reveals a list of excellent poets, none of whom are straight white males. Similarly, the lists of winners of the most prestigious fellowship for emerging American poets, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, contains a set of fifteen diverse winners over the last three years (no straight white males, also).

It can be easy to see why a straight white male poet would read such statistics and despair. But rather than feeling displaced or disheartened, I’d encourage these poets to recognize that the conversations they will be able to enter as a result of this expanding and diverse poetry will be exciting and important and, moreover, that the need to support loudly and publicly such poets outweighs any immediate concerns about prestige or readership. Poetry exists for readers who need it, now and in the future, and the overarching problem with the canon we currently have is that it doesn’t seem to exist for all potential readers.

What hasn’t been discussed or studied yet is how readers have historically reacted to marginalized poetry, and this is what, I think, Hicok and Yu’s concerns point toward. There’s a need to promote more diverse poets partly because readers can be tribalists, gravitating toward books by people who are most like themselves. And, since straight w.m. poets have historically been the dominant force in poetry, the inequality is unidirectional; while marginalized readers have likely studied a snootful of s.w.m. poems in their primary and further educations, s.w.m. readers may not have read much from marginalized voices. But the readership is shifting toward a desire for more diverse poets. This is more than good: it’s American, and it’s necessary. And the growing pains of making a better canon will appear in conversations like this one, which, though perhaps well-intentioned, seems to neglect the trajectory of poetry into the future.

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. His debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.



Review: Barbara Rockman’s to cleave

by Britton Gildersleeve

It’s difficult to write a poem that observes clearly. Not as simple as detailed description: there must not be too many metaphors and similes, only enough that the image offered is pregnant with meaning beneath the surface words. We must be enticed to care about both what the poet is seeing and what they are offering us a view of. Images must reveal and conceal. In her book to cleave, poet Barbara Rockman manages to make this juggling act look effortless.

Just two poems into the book, “Three Peaches on a White Plate,” the peaches “swell . . . in ripening devotion.” The next poem, “At Rest in Rain,” hints at the observer’s mission, in tune with the Rilke epigraph (My looking deepens things and they come toward me to meet and be met.). In other poems, sharp attention to details illuminates a still life, a vignette, a description: a “brackish roadside canal” with a “grass-matted lip”; “the iced deck,/the white-capped night,/gleam that rimmed each porthole”; “clouds like bloated fish.” The landscapes within and without serve as a kind of emotional stereopticon, with the end result a multi-dimensional sense of uneasy beauty. Such specificity creates a window into exterior landscape, as well as a lens through which to view it.

Rockman suggests a dynamic duality, beginning with the opposing climates and terrains of “Flying Home from the Pacific Coast Rim, I Consider the Rio Grande Rift”: “I/press one knee into damp pine duff/one into cold pressed beach . . . what opposition might teach/it is eternal   it is brief. . . .” This sense of conflict, of an overwhelming stasis in the face of a quandary, moves into the next poem as well: “There are two mornings on the menu.” Rockman weighs the choices—“choose from/Morning A  Morning B/ . . . Thorn-studded  Smooth-stalked . . .”

Such juxtapositions share the poet’s confusions, the ways in which she holds opposing images, choices, moments in uneasy balance. She contrasts a turkey vulture—“arthritic . . . moth-eaten”—with an egret “bird more air than night” (lovely!), ultimately reconciling the two to show how “grace lit a path from grief.” “Of the Coal Blue Field,” which begins with the poet and her four-year-old daughter sharing a private vocabulary segues into a stunning commentary on the nature of the poet: “seeing is his subject/and rendition his obsession.”  Certainly that seems true of Rockman’s work.

What enthralls me most, however, is completely subjective: Rockman’s several poems that examine love and marriage, particularly long-term versions of both. In to cleave, she manages to catch both the fleeting moments of everyday married life (“My Husband Comes Home from Work”) and those rare instants of transcendence (“After Birding at Cochiti Lake”). She moves from a catalog of the objective in “Home from Work”—“. . . he straightens, lifts his eyes/”—to the complicating subjective metaphor: “. . . eyes/their concrete bottom and the dead/leaves trapped there.” In “After Birding” the vocabulary of marriage becomes avian, and the images following “when we roll close at night, I hear wings” build to a climax (“Across my back, a blue heron steps./Tips of feathers brush thigh/and neck . . .”), holding the heron, bluebirds, a bald eagle, and rising geese in equal sensual weight. It’s possibly my favorite poem in the book.

Throughout the collection, a recurring dance of hands—the “flushed palms” of tulips, “my grandfather of the lovely hands,” “my hands/are scythes sweeping hay,” an entire poem on hands (“Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz . . .”)—forms a chain, where the hands are beads and the words links in a chain of pages that reach out to gather us in.

In Rockman’s book there is natural observation, there is motherhood; there’s trauma, marriage, family, and a deep love of words. She is a varied writer, moving easily among forms, subjects, voices. Each voice, be it that of a gull, a stone, a child, a daughter-in-law, has something necessary to tell us. I can’t imagine any reader coming away empty-handed. This is a book worth multiple readings.

Barbara Rockman’s earlier book, Sting and Nest, was the winner of the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award and the National Federation of Press Women Book Prize. Her work has been featured in Southern Humanities Review, Nimrod, Bellingham Review, and Taos Journal of Art and Literature, among other national journals.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.