Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Paige Ackerson-Kiely: My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer

“Like most Americans, you approach everything / with an unexpressed need for consolation.” The poems in Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s My Love Is A Dead Arctic Explorer are troubled with the expression of that need. What do we take from other people, they ask, and are we allowed? And even if we are, how are we to do that asking? The speaker in these poems yearns for these consolations, but we watch as she backs away from what she wants. The poem “Birthday” begins, “It was then I said: I don’t want a goddamn thing from you, and then, under my breath, or anyone else, before storming out, that the scales began to chart my decline.” In “On The Failure To Make Home,” we’re told that there’s a “problem / with not asking for anything—/ someone draws the curtains / now you just stare at the curtains.”

And yet, when this speaker receives, she doubts what she’s given, if she deserves it: “It is a matter of indecent accrual, stacked upon, a compost of googolplex that the world should be mine for this pale, shivery packaging. If you love me I will love you back” (“The Pittance”). We don’t deserve each other, these poems chant, and there’s no affection in that assertion. The specter of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the Antarctic explorer, hovers over these poems in unexpected ways: here, love is a remote, unpopulated continent. “Have you seen a night go insane? Imagine that we are finally together,” she writes in “The Meteorite.” Landscape is everywhere, here, and savagely uncaring: “The trees do not think you are crazy. / The trees do not consider you at all” (“Some Reasons for the Woods”).

Ackerson-Kiely’s lines are laconically spare even in the act of confession: “provisions pressed into / cabinets left open as a woman / paying off her passage / here / the problem’s with not using / what you have,” she writes in “On The Failure To Make Home.” Her prose poems thrum with the same terse intensity, a feat that’s made all the more impressive by their number—they make up more than half the book. But while her lineated poems are interested in a fragmented narrative, these prose poems pretend to tell the whole truth. In “The Meteorite,” Ackerson-Kiely writes that “Primary contact with Robert Peary is an endless arctic night. Secondary contact is an endless arctic night that is also insane.” Without knowledge of who Robert Peary is and what crimes he’s committed, this poem is brutally hilarious. With that knowledge (and this is a book that’s earned its notes section), it begins to wrap its tentacles around your throat.

This is a barnburner of a collection, one that begs for a quick, fast read. I wanted badly to reread it slowly and pull these poems apart, but I found myself tearing through it again with the same mounting energy. There’s an urgency to these poems, a need to tell something elusive, just on the tip of the tongue. Out of everyday desperations, Ackerson-Kiely crafts poems that are singular in their experience: “All those bricks!” she writes in “Good Men,” “Enough to bury a body / under no / body, sometimes / nobody at all.”

Paige Ackerson-Kiely
My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer
Ahsahta Press, 2012