The After Party by Jana Prikryl (Tim Duggan Books, 2016)
Reviewed by Hannah Wyatt
A couple of weekends ago, while wandering through the statuesque dinosaurs and food trucks of my new city, I picked up a $1 copy of Jana Prikryl’s The After Party (Tim Duggan Books, 2016) at a tent sale hosted by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. This being my first read of Prikryl’s work, I was delighted to find that, within the first few lines of the collection, I felt I was reading someone who cared about the world I care about.
I often feel it’s hard to come across a collection of contemporary poetry that hooks in the first poem. So many people save that goodness for page four or 10 or heck, even 53. But The After Party filled the first page with colors and moments that shocked me, and as I read on, Prikryl’s work began to remind me of the many complex ways one can go about writing a poem. As someone who writes poetry and wants to learn as much as I can about it, I quickly became aware of how I could value these poems – as a collection of ars poeticas, each crafted with different understandings of lineation and syntax.
The poems in this collection propose complicated relationships between people and things, both in form and content. Each poem actively proposes a complicated relationship to form, while complicating how displacement manifests itself, and how isolation can be described in complicated moments.
I think the idea of displacement is best explored in “New Life”, which considers the ways that being foreign to a place is a lot like being an object. The speaker describes a loved one as a package she must unwrap to get to beneath “petals of bubble wrap” (9). It’s in these delicate moments, when the subject’s “eyes open/ blue as an infant’s/ and equally foreign”, that the speaker introduces an understanding of displacement (10-12). In some ways, displacement is bodily, as the subject’s body is described like an object. And sometimes the displacement is emotional: “I know it tires you./ Mustn’t overdo it.” (21-22).
The identity of the foreign subject is left vague, but you can modestly assume they belong in some ways to the speaker. Time takes a toll on the subject’s memory, on top of the fact that they already must bridge the gap of entering another culture. It’s simply titled “New Life”, but the nature of the new life’s arrival is actually quite complicated, from the way the speaker must “farm” the subjects of their old life, to the way the speaker must tilt their loved one like a package “off the dolly”.
This book is not just about displacement, though. Many of the poems feel far away from me, a fact I owe mainly to my damnable lack of knowledge about the city of Rome and mythology, which are mentioned frequently throughout. At the same time, there are many poems in The After Party that feel very close to me, as though the moments were tangential to, but not the same as, things I’ve experienced.
Prikryl creates this distance from the reader through methods like varied syntax. Additionally, some poems honor the line independently, while others neglect the line altogether, like in “Stanley Cavell Pauses on the Aventine”, which reads more like philosophical prose. Ultimately, I think this works because it’s clear Prikryl cares deeply about the sounds of words – whether they create a clunky-ness or harshness or even a harmony when put together, and she cares about the sensation that creates in the reader. She gives the syntax permission to be uneasy, and creates a world where what you want to say is not so much meant to be succinct or beautiful as it is meant to force you to consider each line and set of sounds.
Still, many of the poems manage to be beautiful in their own ways. And even more, it asks one to do something I often find myself forgetting to do when reading a poem – slow down. Read it again, or even twice more, as I had to do when reading the first poem, “Ontario Gothic.” First, you must understand the physical orientation of the poem’s subjects, then you must understand the speaker’s emotional orientation.
The first part of this poem displays itself as a harmless, albeit somewhat eerie description of how the outside world portrays itself through a vehicle’s window. Part 2 follows up by sneaking inside the car, where the back-seated speaker must take control of the wheel while the driver leans into the rear to share an intimate moment with the other passenger, ultimately leaving the speaker quietly and anxiously isolated.
My favorite moment in this poem occurs in Part 1, when the speaker describes the deep purple leaves of a dwarf maple as “shredded gloves/ that gesture ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ / among floating albino basketballs of hydrangea/among other things the people landscaped/ like fake lashes round the top of the eye” (3-7). She captures a still-life of the street that imagines nature guiding us out of our worries. Seconds later, she recreates those worries by recognizing that even nature can’t soothe us when it’s tainted by its similarity to people.
This “After Party” comes after something, but what that is I can’t point to. Each poem is expressively different and new to me. When read for their teaching abilities, these poems serve as a great guide for how a poet can understand and re-understand the importance of the line and sentence. And when read for their beauty and instinct, these poems shock, surprise, and create worlds of emotion that pull you close to a speaker who deftly worries, defines, and imagines.