I’ve passed much of today deeply absorbed in the poems in Caryl Pagel’s Twice Told (H_ANGM_NBKS, 2014). It’s one of those volumes I’ve had on my shelf for a bit, and despite its attractive cover and the curiosity the title arouses, I’ve passed it over again and again.
Today, I finally picked it up, and I liked it so much that I wish I’d done so months ago. But it was an ideal day to lose myself in Pagel’s twisty syntax and her unusual way of telling—and often of twice-telling, as repetition is a strategy she employs again … and again. (See what I did there?)
I always enjoy a H_NGM_N BKS title. The editors have a good eye for unconventional work, but I haven’t encountered anything I’d call gimmicky. As in Pagel’s collection, the unusual is employed strategically, and in service to the work of the poems.
For an introduction to how repetition and echo appear in Twice Told, a good poem to examine is “Telephone,” which functions sort of like a child’s whispered secret game of telephone.
You discussed it for
hours—all that nothing and what
nothing meant—what a shame it
would be to allow the nothing
to decay—to fade and fly
and die like all those nothings
that you both had had before
It felt like a new nothing
but you knew—instinctually—in your
frantic animal soul—that all nothing
sustains itself the same way—by
expanding—cracking—swallowing itself and all
around it—by colliding with old
nothings You knew and discussed wht
a nothing all your nothing was—
and yet you could not find
an end to it […]
Nine nothings in that short passage, and yet they accrue and add up to something, albeit something intuitive and felt, rather than very clearly stated. It’s best to be OK with that way of reading—of letting the analytic mind release the reins so that the animal you’re astride can find its way.
The effect of the repetition is that each “nothing” hits the reader in the forehead like a pebble—not dangerous, but a little vexsome. It has your attention.
The poems seem to be rooted in the West, as well. One poem’s title announces that it is set in South Dakota—“Scenic, SD,” to be precise, population: nine. And there is a very fine poem called “Ghost Town” that seems to offer an origin story for a ghost town’s possible haunts:
[…] A name is what you
need to become a little less
invisible A name is what you
need to die But what if
you have no stake in this
decrepit town No title or claim
to your one own only cause
Note that sometimes Pagel’s repetition is actually varied repetition, as in that mild tongue-twister at the end of that snippet—“one own only” is a lonely phrase, and a little hard to say. That is one of Pagel’s very effective strategies for slowing the pace and forcing the reader to pay close attention to what she is communicating.
I just generally enjoy Pagel’s language—how she smacks some words together like I once pounded together the faces of my old Barbie and G.I. Joe, theirs a love that was not meant to be. My favorite poem is “The Haunting,” which begins,
There is always another wife you
learn there is always a second
set of events that precedes this
one There is always another love—
a mistress—governess—or charming young
maiden passing through town in the
service of an affluent auntie or
Later in the poem she offers a bit more backstory:
[…] Once when you were young
you committed errors Once when you
were young you fell in love
with a moody bard
The cover price of this book is $14.95. For me, those two words, “moody bard,” are worth the whole sum. I’ve actually been mumbling it to myself today—“‘Once when you / were young you fell in love / with a moody bard’ … moody bard … moody bard …. Why, yes, ma’am, I am ready to order.”
I hope some readers will pick up this collection, if they missed it before. It rewards a quiet day of thought.