Particular Selves

Reviewed by Paisley Conrad

The relationship between poetry and the idea of selfhood is intimate. The poet, offered some critical distance through the apparatus of the poem, can separate the concept from the form of the self and itemize its contents. Yet the self as understood through poetics emerges always entwined through the particular interests and inflections of the poem. Ever in flux, the poetic self meticulously constructs itself through the internalization of the outer world.


Grief reconstructs the self, and such internal transformations are often catalyzed and recatalyzed by the sight of something minute, like a nut, a flower, or a shadow. Eleonore Schönmaier’s Field Guide to the Lost Flower of Crete develops a poetics rooted in such small, quotidian details. In some poems, the memory is in the detail—a speckled eggshell (“Compose”) or a rusted car (“Touching”). In others, memory emerges through physical sensation: “the world’s raw wetness” (“Sisters”) or a cold morning (“Branches”). Even as the speaker remains preoccupied with remembering her own grief, the collection maintains an even tone of patience and calm. However, these memories threaten to overwhelm her calm veneer:


the self we

thought we possess

the self we thought


we are is no


the self.


Schönmaier’s emphasis on precise, short verses invites the reader to become intimate with each vignette, with ample blank space left on the page. Multitudes split across pages, yet each discrete poem’s speaker remains ultimately alone, rehearsing memory without fully giving in to emotional narration. Embracing moments of silence, the speaker’s descriptions of images are clear and distinct; these occasions unfold into the complexity of relationships marked by loss, harm, and unspoken trauma.


Edward Carson’s exploration of the self is equally precise. His whereabouts advances a self that materializes through a series of complex cerebral operations. Instead of demystifying responses of beauty, love, and ecstasy through his attention to neural synapses, Carson enchants emotion by tracking the curve of each feeling. The section called “thereabouts (or the mapmaker’s dilemma)” sets up an understanding of the poem as a sort of machinic map of an ever-expanding mind. His interest in the neural and the biological established, the section “hereabouts (in fourteen scans)” proposes a poetics of grey matter:


where language and thought are ciphers

the likeness of you in countless images


crops up only after you begin to appear

unmoored from the very thought of you[.]


In the “left lingual gyrus occipital lobe” is the brain’s capacity to recognize beauty and similitude, to associate pleasure with a particular face. The operations of the brain—minute and distinct, yet entirely continuous—coalesce to create a notion of the self that is responsive, deft, and plastic. Perception, however, remains dependent on what is palpable; a “never-ending notion of self” propels Carson’s collection, as impulses stemming from images coagulate to form some notion of consciousness.


Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews’ latest collection Meta Stasis is wholly invested in thinking through various tactile, cultural, and physiological implications of the virus as a form of appropriation of the self. She frames the book both in personal terms—thinking through her mother’s death from cancer and creative theft carried out by her peers—and through the global stakes of late capitalism and climate change. Throughout the collection, she cultivates a morphology of surveillance culture. As artistic and biological appropriations decontextualize previous experience, each is the root cause of the emergence of a new form of chaos:


In the heart of the city’s crucible

We become new entities


Reshuffle our foreign selves

In the amniotic foam of new possibilities


This agar dish we will multiply on

Replicating our old selves.


Here and elsewhere, the collection grates against liminal spaces of rapid change. The self is gradually worn down by cancerous replications that threaten to overtake the speaker. Meta Stasis embraces a glib form of nihilism, expressing sardonically that there is no boundary that cannot be breached by cellular or human interlopers. Thus the self remains leaky and permeable, but also capable of change and ultimately resistance.

This review “Particular Selves” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 7 Oct. 2022. Web.

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