Dear Reader of This Review,
Don’t you love when the final poem in a collection shuttles you swiftly back to the first? What better culmination than the implicit invitation to read a book again—and wiser than when we first began!
In the case of Late Epistle, winner of the 2022 Sappho’s Prize in Poetry from Headmistress Press, Anne Myles concludes her full-length debut with an exceptional poem of limbo and pend. The title “I Am Waiting” serves as both first line and anaphoric refrain: “I Am Waiting/ for the trumpet to sound, for a new life to begin,/ whatever that may be. Or else to finally know/ my one life is the only one, and to love it/ enough to make it new.”
In the epistolary spirit that informs her project, Myles’s speaker goes on to reference the autobiographical journey, both intimate and spare, which she has chronicled for her reader in this sequence of 44 quietly and progressively resonant poems: “Who is there to tell about it?/ I am telling you, who are waiting in your way [...]” That you is us.
It is not only death and taxes which define our shared human experience. Waiting is a touchstone of life, for reader and writer and readers-who-are-writers alike. As this poem draws to its close, notice how the speaker resists true closure in favor of ongoingness: “in our ecstasy, our dread, our again/and still.” The I and you have merged into “our” now. We, together, swivel in language and in time.
Late Epistle is arranged into three sections viewable as panels, a triptych that formally echoes the project’s many ekphrastic commitments to the visual and moving arts. The cover image likewise is conversant with the book’s title, arrangement, and motifs: a woman writing a letter while a dog rests at her feet. The domestic space appears quiet, well-ordered, ideal for contemplation and susceptible (perhaps, sometimes) to loneliness. I kept thinking of this woman as a proxy for Myles’s own speaker as I read, returning to the mise-en-scene of the painting and its precise details—wooden chair, ceramic inkwell, three daffodils in a half-filled vase—as well as the careful script of her letter still in progress.
This speaker and her avatar are equally attuned to looking out as looking in, attending to interior and exterior landscapes with an incisiveness that doubles as care.
Between the painting and the book’s three panels comes a prologue poem called “Bane,” the recursive counterpoint to “I Am Waiting.” When I think of the word bane, I think at once of the phrase bane of my existence. I’m prompted to consider what follows me, possibly haunts me, across the phases of my life—something that seems to have been always already with me, even before conscious memory took hold.
Myles’s speaker names it this way: “Even as a girl I felt the subtle ache/ of something unknown growing [...] She speculates: “Could it have been,” “Or perhaps it was,” “Or maybe,” and “But more likely.” Finally, she confides without divulging explicitly: “I’d start at times to realize/ I’d been soothing it, whispering/ the secret name I called it.” We, her correspondents, don’t know the name she used, but we recognize the secret nature of the bane.
In panel one, we travel back in time with our speaker to childhood. We study hers in tandem with recollections of our own.
Familiar: “Because the house was full of rooms I dreamed there was a/ room I had yet to discover.”
Familiar: “But my parents filled the house with their voices so I could not hear my own.”
Familiar: “So much lies hidden at the edge of knowledge,/ as along shore.”
Familiar: “I wanted what was honest, if not always easy.”
You’ll find your own lines, I’m sure, your own personal resonances with Myles’s astute and delicate reflections. There are portraits of parents here, and portraits of parents before their daughter is born. I feel the influence of Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937.” There is also, for me, glimmers of the unfamiliar, what I have not yet lived but someday will:
“My parents, dead now—//what does it mean to think of them across?/ And my whole life unmoored, in transfer.”
And alongside these moments of inquiry and epiphany, the speaker’s plumbing of her past, there is always that parallel landscape of the outer world, vivid as any painted canvas or cinematic reel:
“a plastic tree and reindeer/kept watch by our menorah; bulging stockings/ disgorged a gift each evening” I can see it.
“Peanuts and goldfish crackers. Bustle in the kitchen, paper plates on straw holders, flowered vinyl cloth over the big oak dining table.” I can taste it, see it all.
“the red lake” I can’t un-see it: so unexpected!
“she straddles the foam float, dark-freckled shoulders and back bare,/ hands working, working, busily pulling/ long strands of cabomba weed” I can feel it in my own hands!
“one more green hillside rising,/ high white houses shimmering in the dusk” I looked up as if they were rising before me.
In panel two, the unnamed, the could-not-then-have-been-named, gains power through articulation. The first poem begins: “Because I once believed I loved men. Because I learned I loved women.” Here are my heart lines, intimate and familiar as my own queer truth: “It was the one story I wanted to tell.” Then, the epistolary flourish, the reminder that Myles’s speaker presumes our presence and reaches out to us from the page: “No, listen: beneath all my words it is the secret story, the only thing I’m sure of.”
If you had not decoded the nature of her bane before, you know it now. You know also that the lesbian narrative itself is not the bane. The bane is the drowning out and dismissal of queer stories by a heteronormative world. In Myles’s project, we bear witness to the missing diction the queer writer must find, invent, and reclaim.
Familiar: “I wanted to keep on going/ and I wanted to wait.”
Familiar: “I see now I was painting/ myself, but not my gender—or something/ part of it yet stranger, mine.”
Familiar: “I admire things that are impregnable; they make me feel so queer.”
Familiar: “feeling the way our deepest pasts/live on aching.”
Once again, you’ll find your own resonances here, as Myles’s speaker reckons her way into adulthood, romantic relationships, pursued and neglected desire.
I’ve come to realize that Myles is, above all else, a prodigious archeologist. Her poems, which evoke letters and paintings and films and often directly engage with each of these forms, are unified by the spirit of excavation that guides them. Every poem is a dig site. Every poem first unearths what it ultimately lifts to the light.
Consider the poem “What Is,” which falls near the fulcrum of the book, its four stanzas and its twelve lines revealing (or is it containing?) the depth and scope of a single woman’s life:
Decades ago, mulberries dropped
on my back porch. Useless, over-sweet,
they made me think of love I longed for.
First, the artifact uncovered (a memory of mulberries). Then, the tracing of significance, deliberate as carbon dating (what the mulberries meant at that time).
Now, in my yard, again I chop
their shoots, insistent. And I beat
back images, dizzying, still of her,
Later, a new dig, a new place and time, but the artifact familiar, recursive (mulberries “again”). Significance traced “again,” back to the same source.
wanting to want what is. At night,
last out amidst cicada song,
I watch Mars burn, a small hot heart.
The speaker stands out in the yard, which is both her literal and metaphorical site of excavation. I picture her in the dirt, which is also literal and metaphorical—tangible garden, intangible memory—gateway to the fossilized past. And in the sky, the red planet (literal) becomes “a small hot heart” (metaphorical). Was there ever a more potent image? I can feel it throbbing, feel it burning—this perfect triple spondee.
The air is silvery with moonlight;
it pours over everything. Belong,
belong, it tells me. I am a part.
Those parallel landscapes again, that double, simultaneous dig: what the speaker perceives in the outer world; how she arrests and catalogs each image-qua-specimen to reveal (or is it contain?) the inner.
By panel three, the symbolic and aesthetic excavations of these poems also dovetail with the literal aspects of inheritance. To inherit is not just to receive but also to uncover. “So they were gone. And I got their money/—the real unmentionable.” Yet here in the opening lines of the final section of this book, our speaker mentions the unmentionable and names it for what it is. I hear a shift in her confidence. I hear an implicit renouncing of euphemism. This is the same speaker who will return us to the literal sites of excavation that we visited earlier in her childhood, that may (or may not) have reminded us of ours.
In “Waste Places,” she digs: “Clearing out the lake house I found the poems from college in a falling-apart box under a spare bed, so old they were typed on onionskin.” In the next poem, our speaker is literally “In a Field,” watching horses in the distance, remembering “my one own horse.” In a book where “secret” and “open” are key words, the shift toward opening begins close to the end—the way an archaeologist makes an opening in the earth.
Myles writes, “I feel the ancient sway and open/ a book of knowledge held perfect in my body,/ asking why my whole life I kept giving up/ whatever I delighted in on earth.” And later, in the same poem, in the field of the present and the field of memory that reveals (or it contains?) the past, our speaker is “hoisting [her] knee as [she] opened to the saddle.” What a powerful image as we watch the girl, whose legs have been taught to stay together, stretch across the saddle. The remembered action is an artifact, dusted off now, ready to be examined.
Here again, you’ll find your familiars. Here again, I found mine:
Familiar: “The ancient terror replicating in my bones—/that too passed down.”
Familiar: “Woman claiming a man’s song,/ the song of being loose in the world”
Familiar: “If I could learn to love even that. If I could speak. If I could sing it forth into the world, however desolate, changed and glowing.”
Familiar: “I felt that I was changing, knew exactly/ what I longed for, and for a minute it was me.”
Myles continues to engage my senses as deeply as she engages my mind throughout this book, the visceral and the cerebral see-sawing the way the past and present do. And since the book does not truly end but rather circles back, I’ll conclude my letter to you with the penultimate poem, “Unspeakable,” where so many artifacts of image and reflection coalesce.
The first three stanzas each begin in the conditional tense: “It would...” Tentatively, we are dipping our hands in a lake, which we have done before alongside this speaker. Possibly, we are riding through an open field, which we have done before alongside this speaker. Provisionally, “the old shape of devotion” returns, which reminds us that we still long to devote our lives to something, even after childhood, after the passing of parents, the departure of partners, the promises of religion are gone. Maybe this is familiar to the reader, or maybe it is not. Hence, the conditional.
Then, the certain volta marking uncertainty: “Beyond that, I don’t know.” Don’t you love when a writer is honest enough to tell you they don’t know?
What follows is not conditional but actual. It is also the most vivid scene of embodied desire that Myles’s speaker shares with us. A curtain has been pulled back, or better put—more of this story’s earth has been unearthed. “I recall making love once with a woman on the ground/ deep in the pine barrens. I gazed past her/ to trees and sky. Fill me, I thought, opening myself[...]”
In lineated and prose poems, Myles is writing memoir, excavating relics of lived and witnessed truth, mining the literal, metaphorical, and subjunctive artifacts of her life so far with enduring precision and grace—painterly grace, cinematic grace. Myles’s field notes become this triptych. Her final poem seamlessly returns us to her first. What are you waiting for? she seems to ask between the lines. What would you name if you could—and couldn’t you?
Maybe it’s not a late epistle after all. Or maybe, in the words of Naomi Shihab Nye, “It’s late but everything comes next.” Everything I hoped to find—and everything I didn’t expect to find—is here. So, I invite you, Reader, no, listen, I urgeyou: dig in.
Yours in Poetry,
Julie Marie Wade