Rife with touch, texture, and music, Danielle Cadena Deulen’s beautifully wrought poems will make you swoon and swallow and hurt. They characterize ache and ignite aching, which is to say they pulse with the jouissance and aftershocks of being alive in a body both permeable and ravening. Life – we ascertain – is both syrup and severance. In her poems, humans are rearranged by encounter and by loss, in unending turns bewitched and bewildered. While Deulen’s cinematic eye and lyricism disarm us, the poems simmer with insight about rupture — with the self, other, time, one’s body, culture, and the world. Each poem is a fine scrim behind which the blaze of seduction and sadness touch and dissolve into each other.
No one writes the sensorial like Deulen writes the sensorial, wherein the potency of the everyday is made vivid through the elemental, and our own sensorium becomes velvet and expansive, “almost starshine.” Deulen presents a world lush with “lemon and buttered meat,” “pine cones dropping like heavy flames,” “rain warming on the hoods of cars,” “sugar shin[ing] on the table/ in its immaculate glass,” and “keening daffodils rising green and gold from/ the mud,” a world which is, then, hard not to fall in love with over and over again. Deulen’s language is so bright and surprising that the textured physical world seems to both open to us and to do the work of opening us, beauty magnetizing us toward deeper and more complex feelings. But Deulen also presents a world of immigrant children separated from their families, the guilty acquitted, atomic bomb testing, women caught in the teeth of patriarchy, suicidal ideation and suicide itself, and ecological catastrophe, where “what started as bonfire ended in bureaucracy” and thus the speaker is riven with self-doubt and dreams, tries to “find purchase/ in the erosion.”
Deulen’s poems often present a speaker caught between the pain of a trying childhood and the intense pleasures of young adulthood and the distillations of middle life, wherein “our mouths smudged red/ as if we’d eaten/ each other’s hearts” turns into “don’t worry, I haven’t/ kept my sense of self or wanted/ anything other than to wipe mucus/ from their precious noses, which is to say, I’m good.” The speaker navigates a past that feels so present (“in the atriums/ of [her] chest ... a palimpsest”), and struggles with what one is permitted to be or feel as one settles into big choices. As Deulen’s speaker is repeatedly knotted and undone, ever “at the edge of a precipice” and yet (or and because) “sing[ing]/ with embers in [her] throat,” I’m reminded of the profound heft of the erotic as articulated by Audre Lorde in her essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”:
“We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. [. . .] The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.”
Like the kerosene blues of Amy Winehouse, Deulen’s poems light up the landscape of memory and encourage us to consider what happens when we buckle under the weight of those memories because “what/ came before keeps coming back,” and consequently long to return to a burning field because “the debt/ of time can annul a dream” and “the world was magic/ when it was broken.” How to reconcile the pull of fire and the awareness of ash?
As the title of her just released full-length collection—Desire Museum—suggests, Deulen is a poet interested both in what happens to our past desires, and in what becomes of us when we cannot stop wanting to archive, relive, understand, and return to them, and if it is possible – or desirable – not to. Within this collection, Deulen’s adept and playful use of form – ekphrasis, sestinas, sapphics, and more – never feels as if it’s for its own sake, but rather that she will try anything and everything to wrestle with the irreconcilable aspects of a life lived forward, backward, now, and simultaneously. In a series of Remix poems, Deulen weaves her own experiences with lines from Hopkins, Keats, Crane, and Lorca held, paradoxically, together with the haunting of empty brackets. These brackets are mimetic of the interstices, gaps, and voltas of our lived experience, revealing typographically how frankensteinian and fragmented a life is bound to be, even as we try to piece it together.
Lest you think the heartmaking and heartbreaking of knowing one another is simplistic, read Deulen. Our experiences of deepening and decimation are not, she shows, legible, collapsible, or translatable into the universal, but they are ripe, leaving us ever at the brink of both sweetness and dissolution. Deulen’s work is not the work of remedy or catharsis, but rather of saturation and scarcity, a reminder of the immense potency of real intimacy, and that while “love ends as all things do, with time,” its intensity will ever renovate us. Prepare to emerge from her poems breathless and wounded and more alive.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is the author of four books and a chapbook. Her most recent poetry collection, Desire Museum is out now with BOA Editions. Her previous publications include Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, which won the Barrow Street Book Contest; American Libretto, which won the Sow’s Ear Chapbook Contest;The Riots, which won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the GLCA New Writers Award; andLovely Asunder, which won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the Utah Book Award. She served as a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She has been the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, an Oregon Literary Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry Daily, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Smartish Pace, and The Cincinnati Review. She is co-creator and host of “Lit from the Basement,” a literary podcast. Originally from the Northwest, she now makes her home in Atlanta where she teaches for the graduate creative writing program at Georgia State University.