The last time I was in Midwood, Brooklyn, I was there for a wake to which the daughter of my bereaved colleague brought a floral wreath reading “Friggin Sweet Grandma,” no comma discernable. Though I suppose she was testing boundaries, flexing for the generations, I could not quite read the family’s reactions and I came to conflate the grave, Dante-esque name of the neighborhood with my impressions of my colleague in this context: middle-aged and sandwiched between the finality of death and the flippancy of youth. A dozen years later and reading Jana Prikryl’s Midwood, I am only now realizing that the daughter’s flex was not in the profanity but the ambiguity.
Though Jana Prikryl lives in Brooklyn, Midwood the neighborhood does not appear in her new collection of poems beyond its trees, and the “ding-dong of the Q train doors two blocks away” as it mingles with the “tiny, tin homunculus / flawless in his proportions” of an overheard classical music station. The glimpses we get of setting are less often of New York than of country houses and escapes, European hotel rooms, art openings. But these are only the trappings of a life rich in a poet’s in-betweenness — these sophisticated yet liminal spaces house that same sense of middle age’s impasses and bewilderment that made that other Midwood loom so large in the eyes of my 20-something year-old self. Prikryl writes of aging and death, fertility and affairs, envy and custody, all in an economical and enigmatic language that gives the sense of a life that has flown by only to reach a standstill. She places herself within that famous “mid-wood” of The Inferno: “Midway through the journey of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off a straight path.” These poems, written during the pandemic, are not so much about losing the path in Dante’s moral sense, but losing the path of forward momentum. They are about when life replaces plot with a puzzle that’s worth, alternatingly, a good cry and a good smirk.
In fact, even the “dark wood” itself has lost, if not its plot, its thickness. Trees appear everywhere and signify the changing seasons, but they are by no means cohesive parts of their ecosystems. In “Trundle Bed,” they become “black branches ... in their yellow element / behind aquarium glass.” Prikryl’s trees are city specimens, living amongst people and confused — collected one-by-one to make a forest. In “Some Pines” they are longtime confidantes:
Serried, green as paint, rising up a steep incline
Above my childhood, a sort of extra forehead there
Behind the house, I look back
The pines stand for my good fortune
Growing up in that spot, where they were not
Deciduous and the slope shot down
Under them, many conversations with those trees
With leaves on them and without their leaves absorbed a lot
Compatriots and co-conspirators, even as she ages, in “Midwood 20” Prikryl writes that “it seemed a benevolent gesture on the part of the trees / to hint that they are, like me / annoying strivers in constant danger of making bad choices.” People and trees alike are strangers trying to situate themselves as individuals and members of a community at once, as though the evolutionary fluke that separated them branched off less decisively than we believe.
This same type of nostalgia for paths that have diverged pervades every interaction. About fertility issues, she writes, “not having a child / the worst thing that nearly happened to me / and it happened for years, I couldn’t see the moon / in the sky without shooting dirty looks.” On a potential lover, she observes him smugly to be “far from her type,” before longing for him, then overhearing his “telling that guy / his bullet-proof vest left much to be desired, take yours off / and hand it to him, take his and put it on.” The speaker ends yearning less for the man than for the vest, for protection from her own self, with its withering distance and scrutiny. Again and again she travels and steps into spaces that seem both far and near from her own, from garden dream homes (“almost too much for me to take in / this woman’s house, who is my age”) to hot air balloons in the alps (“my holiday made of wishing I lived there / with such a conveyance of my own.”) But these observations lean as wry as they are wistful– it feels more like a relishing of return, at least in the mind, to existing between possibilities.
In the very first poem of a series all titled “The Noncello,” which winds its way through the section-less, borderless book like its namesake Italian river, Prikryl writes:
the places I long for are parted by water
tension on the surface of the Noncello
even riding low, it looked like it was brimming
every ripple made of a meniscus
which, imperceptible as body
how it reached you was the tempo, stately tempo, of its flow
These lines are a key — she thrives for the pressure at the border of the present and memory, between what is and could have been. While these spaces do set the rhythm of the collection, she resists tying any of it up in self-realization or fulfillment. Being at a loss when asked by an “unprepossessing girl” to give writing advice she thinks “each line has been an accident, staring at the texture / of the plaster on the wall behind her, rivulets cords tendons the lines may stand / if I remove myself...” The speaker is at once startled at having nothing solid to offer and that someone would ask about achievement, would identify her as one of those “annoying strivers.”
The book is mostly absent hard punctuation — question marks, dashes — allowing each line to flow quietly while implicitly telling the reader not to stir. “Can you reach abstraction without going through chaos / winter asked itself, replied / yes...” Prikryl asks, resolving the question through nature, or at least in using winter’s voice, her own sensory perceptions. Here, though, abstraction is not an artistic style, but a necessary place for contemplation. These poems could almost be the thoughts of Rachel Cusk’s narrator, Faye, of the Outline trilogy, stepping off-page, whenever it is that the world around her finally stops talking. That is not just because their literary-intellectual milieus track so well, but because of a shared way of crystallizing mundanities into an expansive, borderless self. “No / words at all just demonstration of power / a flyover, depressing,” Prikryl writes in “Midwood 9” describing both the wind through trees and questioning, half grumble half inside joke, the rush to fill all void with language.
The polished combination of urgency and standstill in these poems is not simply due to the thicket of middle age. These poems were written in the early morning during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The anthropocene had entered its own Midwood, and these poems mine dreams — usually so claustrophobic — as the richest available access to the world. They feel like they are not poems written about dreams so much as they are a very decisive technique to flout the tired paradigm of observing the world, synthesizing, hauling in the metaphors. In these poems, the dream world has already thrown the disparate together, synthesized into its own complete sensory experience, as real as anything else. It is from that point that Prikryl observes. And it is by this process that she goes deeper faster. Imagining waves rushing under the fire escape in the collection’s final poem, she writes “What would I do then? / I’d have it all, at the edge of the element we share / I’d have no more of wanting.” Whether the poet flies from an art deco skyscraper or stands at an airport copy machine — near every poem could be a New Yorker cartoon in another life — ambiguity is a disorienting flex but also a generosity that cracks open the most private moments, the inside jokes.