Jana Prikryl’s Poetry of Perpetual Motion

Jana Prikryl’s Poetry of Perpetual Motion

Jana Prikryl’s Poetry of Perpetual Motion

In her new collection, Midwood, she travels through the borders of space, time, life, and death.


Women and exile are linked,” observes Etel Adnan in Of Cities and Women, her series of letters concerning urban life, place, and gender written toward the end of the 20th century. Virginia Woolf, writing closer to the century’s midpoint, famously declared in her great anti-war treatise Three Guineas that “As a woman I want no country. As a woman I need no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” The sensibility that links these works and those of others (Simone Weil, Judith Butler, etc.) is a desire to imagine a space outside the masculine spheres of nations, flags, and borders.

Into this loose tradition of womanhood and exile, we can include a new work from our new century: Jana Prikryl’s third poetry collection, Midwood. Though its poems may not, at first glance, appear explicitly political—they are brief, loosely punctuated, and contemplative in their approaches to motherhood, middle age, and the natural world—they are works that, in their hyper-specificity of place and setting, actually undermine the grip that borders (of both the national and metaphoric variety) can hold. As Prikryl told The Paris Review in 2016, “A woman or any member of a historically exploited group is a kind of rootless cosmopolitan…. when I’m writing, place usually acts as a metaphor for time and history, and for the ways a person’s freedom and selfhood are circumscribed or enlarged.” With their frequent references to water, modes of transportation, and cities both international and domestic, Midwood’s poems form their own kind of travelogue, one written from the countries of aging, of motherhood, of inwardness—landscapes that have no use for our petty allegiances.

Written, as Prikryl tells Canada’s Globe and Mail, at the rate of one per day, mostly in the mornings, mostly in one place because of the pandemic, and with the goal of experimenting with longer lines in shorter forms, there is a restless quality to these poems, which pair a sense of forward motion with the language of cities and travel. Bus routes “sew together along the rims of the hills” as seen from the window of a moving bus in “Another Visit,” while in “My Papers,” a copy machine at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport “spits out the papers I need to fly home.” Two of the titles—“Window Seat” and “Jet Lag”—are themselves explicit references to air travel; in the latter, Rome’s buildings take on the look of bodies, melting into their own population when described, in a startling phrase, as “every structure / in this city a skin tone.” Cities and their respective landmarks appear with the stylishly quotidian regularity of maps: Munich; Berlin; Split, Croatia; the Noncello River; the Q train. “Aubade,” its title borrowed from that specific genre of poetry and music composed for morning, notes a moment in which “Europe and America were / five inches closer to the other,” and this will not be the only instance in this collection in which the New and Old Worlds mingle and collide.

In their briefness, their infrequent and scattered punctuation, these poems take on an intimacy that is not so much conversational as it is interior—like a running soliloquy with oneself. Adding to this sense of intimacy are the frequent allusions from the poems’ speaker to a son (“the little man who’s four”) and the work that goes into child-rearing and domesticity (“The one to be mastered is you / yet I keep trimming the sheets around” begins “Living Room”). But to experience motherhood requires another type of journey: A single line in “Custody Hearing”—“the deep window sill in the delivery room like an airport’s”—evokes, in one instant, the transience of life itself, with its births and deaths, its arrivals and departures, the takeoffs and landings. The airport is understood to be the site of beginnings and endings, ushering its passengers into the greater world surrounding them in the same way that the maternity ward also becomes a place of transit for mothers and their children. If contemporary life is characterized by its sense of speed, its whir of forward motion, then Prikryl’s emphasis, even when writing about the domestic sphere, on the machinery that facilitates this motion—the planes, trains, buses, and cars with which we conduct the rhythms our daily lives—underscores just how much our lives these days are lived on the move. What her collection proposes, then, is that by examining the machinery, we might take a step back and more thoroughly examine the life lived in between these beginnings and endings, this place within the middle. It also takes the theme of womanhood and exile further, blurring time periods, personages, and places into one.

This same interest in physical place and the experience of the in-between appears in “Another Time,” one of the cluster of poems in Midwood that deals with infertility and its attendant experiences of stillness, frustration, anticipation, and delay. In these poems, Prikryl is honest about an experience that remains comparatively underdiscussed in the literature of motherhood: that of the miscarriage. “Another Time” echoes the language of the earlier “Another Visit,” with its image of sewn-together bus routes and its setting in a foreign locale, but here the backdrop of another country underscores a feeling of something alien and unknown. “In Rome the doctor German,” Prikryl writes,

when I looked from the window of another
visit to that city, silver at the temples
he used his kindest tone, considering the bus routes
I’d sew together along the rim of the hills

residing in the narrowness of it opening to regret
tucked under the shoulder of a slope
sounding almost casual, oh
I mean to see but never do, the heartbeat’s gone

The familiar language of buses and hills, the small change in the title, even the fact that this is the second poem in the collection to portray the loss of a pregnancy (the first, “Our Second,” appears a few pages before)—Prikryl’s use of repetition creates a feeling of uneasy compression, turning the poem’s intimacy cramped, a kind of déjà vu filling the page as the reader, like a tourist, squeezes into an uncomfortable corner. If illness is, as Susan Sontag wrote, “an onerous citizenship,” so too is infertility.

But Midwood’s use of repetition also works to expand time and space as much as it contracts it. Phrases, images, sentences, and titles recur multiple times in the book; the effect is one that freezes time as much as it also reveals its passing. In a series of poems entitled “The Noncello,” after the river in northeastern Italy, a loose narrative emerges, though the seven poems in the cycle remain relatively unconnected to any of the poems immediately preceding or following them. “The places I long for are parted by water,” Prikryl writes in the first Noncello poem, and the six others bob up with semi-frequent occurrence throughout the collection, appearing every so often like a swimmer’s head emerging for air.

“We found a park on the banks of the Noncello / a public park, a lawn for all, for anyone to kiss,” begins the second of the Noncello poems. By the fourth, another character known only as the “apartment man” emerges, with little identifying information outside of his nationality—“German if you want to know.” (“I couldn’t do that to my dead Babi,” Prikryl goes on to write, an enigmatic line, rich with the history of the 20th century, that says so much about national identity, war, and the ways in which history shapes us in so little.) In a later poem, the apartment man flies to America, his “infiltrating gaze” turned, at one point, to a waitress in a bar, “not a few lines / of dialogue testing the border,” and here national borders fuse with the borders of language, as well as the ones that divide men and women. Appearing at seemingly random intervals, each with the exact same title—“The Noncello,” sans number or note marking them as part of a series—it’s hard to tell if these poems are memories, dreams, or something else. Bound only to their own time line and preoccupied as they are with the tension between a North American and a European, the Noncello poems use the hard boundaries of citizenship and country to blur the more metaphoric boundaries of desire, real life versus dream and fiction.

In 23 other poems, each called “Midwood,” repetition becomes a way to unmoor the familiar and to make strange the passing of time. For one thing, the poems this time are numbered, with the months—April, July, “late August thing,” October—occasionally noted. Named after the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn where Prikryl resides, these poems function as the book’s through line, nature as viewed on the other side of a window—but a natural world that is turned odd, unknowable, with each new glance. Certain phrases are reworked: The first line of “Midwood 1,” “Out of the garment of the land,” becomes “Out of the / garment of the” in “Midwood 2” and “Out of the garment / of the land” in “Midwood 3,” before wryly turning into “Out of the garment of the dirt over there” in “Midwood 14.” Unexpected metaphors are fashioned out of comparisons to foreign places and people: April, in “Midwood 4,” is “airport weather”; in “Midwood 6,” spring is likened to “a Parisian, cold and controlled”; in “Midwood 9,” the wind

forms words foreign to us by the seashore
colder, no
words at all just the demonstration of power
a flyover, depressing

The natural realm, in these poems, is portrayed both as a comfort, something to be returned to, and as deeply indecipherable and opaque. Depicted in lines that are pruned and rearranged with each new iteration, the trees, wind, and leaves portrayed here are halfway between wild and domesticated, fashioned into something that veers between recognizable and disturbing. “Can you reach abstraction without going through chaos,” asks a line in the last of the Midwood poems, set against the backdrop of winter, and it is a question that hovers over the entirety of this work, concerned as it is with midpoints, midways, and mid-selves.

Even the self, the “I,” is susceptible to this abstraction. In “The Speed,” time becomes diffuse, the borders that separate the past from the present turning blurry via a speeding bus on a snowy road: “My heart flipped,” recalls the poem’s speaker, “I gained a piece of knowledge then, it hates to be in cars.” The lines here are elongated, some of the lengthiest in the book, forcing the reader to slow down, in the same way rubbernecking drivers gawk at an accident. But here, the wreckage is more intangible—that which divides countries, epochs, and identities:

the speed’s not honest, the face in the glass not mine
but softened, melted over angles my face lacks, it was I see
the face Milena Jesenská possessed in her middle years, which were her last

Time collapses. Two women merge into one, the speaker and Jesenská, the Czech writer, translator, and confidant to Kafka, and they are unencumbered by the barriers ordinarily imposed on them by history. In this moment of reflection, Prikryl—who was born in what is now the Czech Republic, before moving to Canada with her family as a child—creates a fusion between past and present that serves as a way station between two different sets of selves, two different sets of histories, and two different women. To be in the middle, then, is to embrace the abstraction of the in-between, the indeterminate. In a poem that is about, among many other things, the “middle years” and death, there is a comfort to this—the past, lurking beneath the outward veneer of the present, can be revisited. This is time travel, of a sort. It does not require a passport or documents; there are no visas. And with Midwood, Prikryl traverses this liminal space with the careful eye of a seasoned traveler.

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