Velocity by Nancy Krygowski
Pitt Poetry Series (Paperback - Sep 28, 2007)
Why do I love this book? It sounds nothing like most of the poets I go around praising; it won the 2006 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, so it doesn't need any help from little ole me; and it's a Pittsburgh University Press book, so it doesn't need any help from anybody, actually. But I read it last night and the night before, and I was touched by it. It's gendery as hell, but not in that cloying way you sometimes find, where the author's resentment of the other side's real offenses has outstripped the more interesting emotions like ambivalence and yearning. The title poem is about the rape (the word doesn't occur, but it's pretty clear what we're seeing) of a 16 year old girl by two men from a truck, "On a rural road in Georgia." So there is cause for bitterness galore, but we find "Control," "Still Wet, "Dear Panties," and "It's A Good Day," tender poems of longing for intimacy and ambivalence about love.
IT'S A GOOD DAY
This picture will be too small for legibility, but click it and it'll open nice and large.
The whole poem is humane; nobody is the asshole; everyone is doing the best s/he can, glamor-free. And yet the pain of being alive is in there, along with the kernel of erotic possibility that keeps people going through times of drought. Three people are in line at the express lane; two men, one buying Vaseline to masturbate with, the other buying condoms for actual sex. In front of them and quite alone is the poem's female speaker, who combines the first man's loneliness with the second man's capacity for actual coupling. In case the photo doesn't behave, here's the second half of the poem:
I look for pennies in the bottom of my purse
and look, too, at the word, pennies,
which could almost be the other word,
because of Mr. Vaseline and the happy thing
he is off to do, and because I loved a man
with a beautiful penis, one whose hand,
right now, probably grips a pencil
with the faith of a mathematician who accepts
there are no perfect circles in the world,
that perfect circle exists
not in the smooth-edged copper I slip
into the cashier's hand,
not in the three-pack of Trojans
the man behind me tosses down
on the still-moving conveyor belt,
but only in theory.
He sticks out three one-dollar bills exactly
as the girl hands me the same.
So I smile.
At the mystery of synchronicity,
at the man's beautiful impatience,
at the fact that I, too, had a lover,
one whose tobacco-colored eyes stared
at numbers, triangles, letters
that stood for numbers,
and wondered if a mathematical proposition
could be proven by appealing to experience,
as if a perfect, deep kiss could be proof
of the imperfect circle
of long, consistent love.
The answer, I am told, is no.
But now I remember, happily, exactly what I mourn.
The word "happy" occurs twice here, each occurrence darkened by loneliness. Though there is "synchronicity" in the triad of customers, and the man's three-dollar price, and the woman's three dollars change, and the three-pack of Trojans, it doesn't amount to much. Even the difficult truth which the remembered lover had already come to accept -- "there are no perfect circles in the world" -- is just a taste of the eventual necessary suffering; even "long, consistent love" is "imperfect"; and "the imperfect circle / of long, consistent love" is out of reach. But the fallen, material, geometrically dodgy circles of these mute physical objects -- the pennies, the rolled condoms, even the lid on the "big tub" of Vaseline (as many, many of us are aware, only the largest tubs of Vaseline have circular lids) -- are at least round, even if not Round.
In the Symposium, Plato brought together his thoughts about numbers as exemplars of a perfect and immaterial world of "forms," and his deep worry about love. Real tables and chairs get broken, or they rot, or somebody walks off with them while you're out at the festival. But the Ultimate Table of Tableness, and the Eternal Chair of Chair-osity, cannot fail.
Coins get clipped, wheels are pitted by the gravel of the road, the athelete is frustrated by the discus that feels worn and lopsided -- and as Galileo was astonished to find, the undying Sun itself suffers distortions in its shape (sunspots, solar flares). But the Absolutely Round is beyond this material world, in an unassailable elsewhere to which only the Gods, the dead, and the unborn enjoy unmediated access. Loving a mortal person who is trapped in the body (as Yeats had it, "chained to a dying animal") is a big drag because one way or another you lose him or her. Most of Shakespeare's sonnets are a fugue set to just this Platonic tune. The philosopher exhorted his students to rise above interpersonal attachments (not just the more obviously dangerous love of riches) because, having lost his own beloved mentor to State terror in 399 BCE, Plato knew that the loss of a unique beloved is devastating. Better to love the integers, better to love geometry, since those won't leave us in this life and they will be waiting for us in the next. Krygowski might find this stuff entirely alien to Velocity, but I don't think so. Her book seems to know all about it.
Another strength of this bittersweet work is its excellent poetry of mourning for a beloved dead sister, and for a rather mean mother whose dementia has left her half alive and a little bit nicer. Those elegiac poems aren't grouped together; the tide of grief ebbs and flows in Velocity as it does in real life (an excellent editorial choice).
I have to go stir the cocoa. The point is, this book is well worth buying and reading, and on the strength of it, Nancy Krygowski is now one of the poets I'll mention when people ask me which living poets I really like to read.