The poems in Virginia Smith Rice’s When I Wake It Will Be Forever (Sundress, 2014) feel both vital and interrupted, like an urgent transmission you lean into but catch only half of—like if there were a ship, not the Carpathia, that could catch snippets like “Titanic” and “iceberg” and “passengers” and “sinking,” but couldn’t quite make out the coordinates, which may have been close, reachable.
The title bolsters this feeling—this is crucial instruction only half-remembered from a dream. And Rice’s practice of titling her poems with phrases inside brackets, always italicized, also bears this sense out. These title phrases typically don’t appear in the poems themselves, but add more information, much of it very evocative, as with “[tell me more about this dragging],” or “[blonde and sad skeletons, whistle, whistle]”, or “[midde school as a famished, half-frozen dog].”
The project in Rice’s work may seem to be a denial of the reliability of witness, but as a reader, I found the voice at work in the poems to be unusually trustworthy, owning both its wisdom and the gaps in its understanding. This poetry doesn’t offer the bluster of assurance, but understands that it dwells in uncertainty, like eyes scanning a room partly in shadow.
Whenever I read a collection, I like to reflect afterwards on what remains in me once the book is closed and out of sight. I love the work in When I Wake It Will Be Forever, but there are two poems that have special staying power for me, maybe because of the power of their imagery, or maybe because I’m just drawn to their subject matter.
First, early in the book, is the poem “[about bats].” Rice describes moving on from a house filled with anger (possibly a move to a new house after a breakup? The poem understands what information is vital and what isn’t, and thus doesn’t dwell on minutiae). She writes,
I tried spinning out of one life and the bats
moved with me,
papering space with odd sightings: a black sock
crumpled in the washer, scooped out before
I feel tiny bones or see the bred teeth:
another perched, twitching
my pillow at dawn as I stir startle freeze.
Rice describes how “It is possible to develop a competence / at anything,” and how the speaker of the poem learned to trap frightened bats and usher them out of the home. Concludes Rice,
It is difficult
to hold still and discover anything
new in the day. Bats know this:
that’s why they are most alive in the dark.
The bats—night visitors with teeth and bones, beings that might share your pillow—are a powerful symbol, but I appreciate that Rice first lets them be bats. Amazing animals, bats—and they are certainly worthy to be examined in a poem.
My other favorite poem in the collection, “[about dying and then not],” concerns a suicide-in-progress that the speaker encountered (man slumped i
A tree downed by a storm
lies on its side for years,
half dead, the other still
leafing out each spring,
and already it is something
other than a tree—my daughter
examines snapped rootlets
strung with tiny mushrooms
and shudders while she traces
from a distance each gray branch
that twines new green.
It’s just a remarkable juxtaposition, that dying man and that tree, also liminal, half dead and half sprouting, like, maybe, all of us.
An interview with Virginia Smith Rice …
What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I wanted to be a nun. I grew up in a family of ten; my father was the principal of the Catholic school we all attended, and we knew the nuns very well. Their convent seemed like a larger, less-cluttered version of home, the nuns were nice to each other, and they got to go into the parish church, which had beautiful stained glass windows, when it was empty. I was terrified, as a child, by the idea that someday I would have to leave home. Moving only a few blocks away seemed like a good solution to the problem of growing up.
What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
And. And is generous. It's inclusive. And opens—it adds onto whatever came before.
Describe your worst poetic habit.
A poet I worked with always drew a line down the right-hand margin of the poems he was critiquing to show how smooth/ragged the line-lengths were. It triggered a compulsion on my part to keep the body of the poem even—a habit that is worsening as time goes on (you can see the beginnings of it in some of the later poems from When I Wake.) At this point I've decided to ride it out, push it as far as I can, and trust that at some point the poems will break back into jagged edges.
It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about _____:
This one has me stumped. I rarely read anthologies—I tend to read one poet, deeply, for a long time. Anthologies keep breaking the spell, for me, of that one voice drawing me in.
It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry.
Virginia Smith Rice's poems were useful to those most interested in creating things—they lent themselves to being broken, taken apart, and turned into something new.
Virginia Smith Rice is the author of When I Wake It Will Be Forever (Sundress Publications, 2014.) Her poems appear in Baltimore Review, Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Meridian, Salamander, and Third Coast, among other journals. She is co-editor of the poetry journal Kettle Blue Review and associate editor at Canopic Publishing.
Editor's note: This is the Jan. 6 installment of Poem366 (#6 out of 366 entries this year). If you are a poet or publisher who would like for me to consider a title, I am happy to accept physical copies (printouts are fine) of recent books. At this time I'm considering only full-length collections published by established presses (no self-published work). Feel free to mail a copy to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804.