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
“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 (saboteur, concertina). 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:
rises safely into the buoyant air
and my bed
when I return home
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.
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.
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.