I think I get the concept behind Ventriloquy by Athena Kildegaard (Tinderbox Editions, 2016).
The book’s five discrete sections offer five distinct paradigms for considering the world, as if the poet is trying on five different voices—just as a ventriloquist might have a trunk full of props to let her try out different ways of processing the world.
By far my favorite section was the first one, Garden of Tongues, Garden of Eyes, where all poems address the origins of flowers. Every poem is eight lines long, and they are titled “The” plus the name of a flower—“The Pansies,” The Fuchsias,” “The Clematis,” “The Gardenias.” And I am reminded of Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, not in the substance of the poems, but in the thoroughness of the study and the distinct and accurate-feeling description of each flower.
In, for example, “The Lilies,” Kildegaard treats the flowers as primeval, coming before people and before any flood:
before the moon fell into earth’s shadow
and gravity craved the stars,
the lily bloomed, her white tongue,
without even a syllable to sound,
licking up the space around her.
Kildegaard’s history feels true, and it’s easy to visual the flower from her description. The effect of twenty of these small poems in short succession is similar to a walk through a huge formal garden.
The collection’s second section, “Saints, Contrary and Futile (I),” and its fourth, “Saints, Contrary and Futile (II),” are ostensibly the same, but the two felt a little different in my reading. Part I seemed to deal more with emotions and the real word, while Part II covered saints associated with the world of commerce and information technology.
A favorite of mine is in this second Saint section (the fourth section of the collection), titled “The Wee Saint of Big Data.” This saint, Kildegaard reports,
never stopped humming,
between who we are
and who we want to be.
Someone tried to grab hold,
she slithered on.
By her persistence
we are rendered inconsequential.
A few poems later, Kildegaard offers “The Saint of Efficiency,” who, she writes,
has no friends, at least none
she can name,
unless initials count.
Call her the saint of acronyms.
That’s what we’re reduced to,
thanks to St E
steering us down the quickest path.
Kildegaard clearly intends some social commentary, but as a reader I’m pleased that this isn’t the point of her writing. The saints have their own problems, their own personalities and lives, and these are foregrounded in the poems—making the commentary all the more effective.
Kildegaard’s other sections are “Divination,” dealing with ways of forecasting the future, and the types of divination she explores is indicated in the titles: “By Sighs,” “By Beads,” “By Ice,” “By Mettle,” and the like.
Her final section contains fully justified prose poems titled “Still Life With …,” with subjects including “Satellite,” “Brain,” “Oil Rig,” “Universe”—nineteen in all. The form makes the poems somewhat concrete—they are all shaped like paintings, all lined up in the book like on a gallery wall.
She concludes with the spectacular “Still Life With God,” which begins, “There is no vanishing point, the perspective’s askew as if big hands have reached in from behind to shake the frame: gilt on carved fronds, lilies, and marigolds.” All of these still lives work in this way—depicting a painting of objects, like vases and fruits, rather than trying to depict an actual brain or universe or God.
I should also mention that this is a beautiful book by Tinderbox, with beautiful artwork by Lisa Solomon, and it is designed by the same person who designed this blog—the extremely talented Nikkita Cohoon. I’m eager to see what else Tinderbox has in store in the future.
An interview with Athena Kildegaard …
- What did you want to be when you grew up, and why? In fifth grade I wanted to be a cheese taster. Why? Because: see Donald Hall: cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness. I always add one phrase to his poem that isn't there, but should be: cheeses of euphony.
- What is the very best word in this collection? Explain. Jackalope. Because: it delivers ejaculation.
- Describe your worst poetic habit. That's easy: the too-easy ending. I have to fight that with the power of the mythical jackalope.
- It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning. Trees. Why? Because: carbon.
- It’s your poetic obituary! Offer an essential statement about your poetry. Athena Kildegaard was a poet who laughed and cried in equal measure.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of four books of poems: Rare Momentum, a collection of Fibonaccis, Bodies of Light, a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, Cloves & Honey, a book of love poems, and Ventriloquy, just out from the new Tinderbox Editions. She lives and teaches in Morris, MN.