The poetry gods claim that a second book is much harder than the first because the bar is set. If a debut collection has received accolades, expectations for the follow-up will be that much higher. Two spring releases come with this kind of baggage attached: both are from poets whose first books won awards and received critical praise. Fortunately, both new books live up to the promise of their predecessors.
Kayla Czaga’s Dunk Tank is an inventory of the folly of youth tinted by darkness and surrealism. Czaga manages to capture moments of maturation with the wisdom of a backward glance. The book is a diary of growing up with all its pitfalls, confusions, and absurdity; the narrator reflects with the honesty of distance and time: “Oh, you were inept and sweaty / but everything was urgent enough / to be the season finale, every day.” We meet characters who push boundaries and hone the author’s maturity – Czaga’s task is to distill the wisdom of these moments into something meaningful and inviting for an outside reader.
And Czaga does her job well. Embedded throughout the poems are nougats of wisdom that transcend her individual experience and become existential and highly relatable. Here is a moment from the title poem, in which the central figure finds herself poised above the tank’s waiting water:
on your chair, smart girl, only
your chair drops and before you fall
there’s a moment you’re sitting
on nothing and you think maybe
you won’t fall after all – maybe
you’ll just hover here forever.
Czaga follows this poem with “Drunk River,” in which a girl is caught in a situation that turns very wrong very fast. The scene evokes Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story “Cat Person,” and Czaga handles the material adeptly – the narrative twists are efficient and leave the reader a bit stunned at the end. Like the girl in the poem, we are taken for a ride far different from what was promised. Moments like these, in which the underbelly of a situation is exposed, show insightful consideration.
Czaga handles the ridiculous well, while deeply examining the idiosyncrasy of human nature: “One Christmas, Santa gave you a set of panties / so jumbo you called them thunderpants … believing your butt / would become a skydiver or even prime minister.” The poet’s contemporary voice contains wisdom and Dunk Tank is a volume many readers will find approachable and skilful in its poetics and narrative detail.
The opening page of a poetry book should offer both a promise and an invitation. Cassidy McFadzean’s Drolleries does this, evoking magic and vivid detail: “Forest pine needles formed a false floor / that broke away below me, earth / loosening around the roots / of a rotting log’s hollow chambers.” Rarely does a poetry collection do such a cogent job of combining world-building and specifics. Everyday items such as shower curtains become the theatre for a reclamation of the body and a mythology of the mind.
While much of the recent poetic fad for magic comes across as twee, McFadzean ups the stakes in her gruesome witchcraft. A fixation on the body provides squeamish enjoyment in poems such as “The Necropants” and “Mood,” in which the occult becomes firmly rooted in the physical. “The Necropants” – which follows “Saga,” a poem about animal-skinning – describes the titular pants, made of real human skin, which can bring the wearer either eternal riches or lice.
In Drolleries, McFadzean comes into her own as a metaphor maker. She spares the reader nothing throughout: “Witchhazel in my pussy. / Rose water on the brain. / Let’s not go down memory lane, / but memory locker, feeling stored away.” Repeating images of rings, sex, power, marriage, and divorce carry the reader through a longer and wider metanarrative than any one poem can provide. These lines from “Kunstkamera” cleanly sum up the book’s thematic thrust: “It is the artistry / of the still lifes that draws us in.”
Drolleries is a must-have for its technical skill and lyrical brevity. The publisher’s copy suggests the collection is about “the violence of the patriarchy” – a tired and myopic phrase. In fact, it is about the power of a woman in the heat of her physical and mystical prowess, rife with clear, dark, and specific imagery and full of emotional charge, all while maintaining poetic complexity. McFadzean reads as the smart girl in class who makes even skeptics believe in the occult and sends them home to have unsettled dreams.