Quiet Devastation: A Review of Bridget Lowe’s At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky by Christine Kitano

Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2013

Bridget Lowe’s obsessions play out in the guise of characters—Vaslav Nijinsky, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, the “forgotten actress,” the pilgrim—all of whom face questions of identity in the tensions between self and community, intellect and emotion, the wild and the civilized. In her debut collection of poems, At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky, titles such as “The Forgotten Actress as Contestant on Dancing with the Stars,” “The Gods Rush In Like Police,” and “The Doctor, Drunk, Gives the Wild Boy of Aveyron Advice on Women and Sex,” offer just a sampling of the strange and motley world through which Lowe leads us. But the collection works as a whole, largely due to the consistency of Lowe’s voice. The speakers throughout exude a calm self-awareness and authority; even the first-person speakers manage to maintain an objective distance from their own plights. For example, though the speaker in “The Forgotten Actress Dressed as Catwoman Alone in Her Room” details her lack of a cohesive identity, the poem does not slip into self-pity. The ending stanzas read:

A woman on her knees
understands what it’s like when people look
and think they see you.

We all have a part to play, the nuns liked to say,
in the Lord’s universe.
I knew that this was mine.

Instead of solipsism, these final moments reveal the speaker’s relative objectivity and awareness in relation to her “part to play.”

One could focus on Lowe’s intriguing use of character and persona, how these characters appear then reappear, creating a loose thematic narrative throughout the collection so that the ending poems achieve, if not a feeling of finality, a sense of the characters’ resolves. While skillful and enjoyable, it is Lowe’s ability to push a poem beyond its initial borders that truly captivates. In many contemporary poems, it feels as though the poet backs off too soon after arriving at an evocative line or image. But many of Lowe’s poems demonstrate how fully satisfying and exhilarating a poem can be if it risks overstatement to achieve greater resonance.

For example, the second and final stanza of the short poem “In My Study of Hysteria” reads:

In my study of hysteria, we are riding on a train.
It is autumn now. I am tired.
My hair has turned grey just playing this game.
A woman boards the train and, Hitchcockian,
insists she is me. By now
I am stupid. I believe her.

Another poet might have stopped at the line “insists she is me.” Such an ending feels complete; the loss of self in this image neatly sums up the poem’s overall themes of hysteria, paranoia, and concern with the self’s integrity. Such an ending, however, would work too hard to create open-endedness by imposing a false sense of mystery, ultimately shutting down the poem’s movement too quickly. Lowe’s ending continues the poem’s movement by pushing the conceit one step further—the prepositional phrase “By now” insists on a mysterious causality and urgency, making the final statements truly claustrophobic and threatening.

Furthermore, it is this extension, this pushing of the poem beyond its expected limits, that gives Lowe’s speakers a sense of authority. Though never intrusive or didactic, the voices in these poems do not back down from their observations, and Lowe often adds an extra adjective or image to ensure we fully see what she sees. In “Pygmalion,” the speaker takes on a tone both accusatory and sympathetic as she speaks, ostensibly, to a contemporary Pygmalion-type who in youth keeps images of girls under his bed. In describing a particular photograph, Lowe writes:

the soft
focus shot taken from behind

of a girl spreading herself
open, showing you

the gleaming baby
rodent, wrinkled pink

anemone, inviting you, her head
turned, her mouth…

While either “gleaming baby / rodent” or “wrinkled pink / anemone” would have sufficed in providing the image, Lowe chooses to push the image beyond the merely vivid. The line breaks further facture and isolate the images, so that the eye moves from “baby” to “baby rodent” to “rodent, wrinkled pink” to “wrinkled pink / anemone.” This movement through the images enacts the speaker’s progressing disgust as well as her unwillingness to shy away from the subject at hand. By pushing the poem beyond its easy limits, we witness the speaker’s forthrightness, her commitment to tell us the whole truth as she sees it.

Lowe is clearly a well-read poet, her poems rooted in a variety of traditions. One of the more obvious influences is that of the Eastern Europeans, from whom she inherits the ability to couple surreal imagery with an almost flat delivery, a technique which often achieves emotional resonance precisely due to this understatement. In a poem like “Leitmotif,” the end-stopped lines create a false calm:

I wore your ring until my hand fell off.
I put my hand on ice, my body under glass.
I slept a hundred years like that.

People came from distant lands to admire me.
My hair was preserved, a single flame.
Where were you?

In these lines, the direct statements belie the severity of the described events. The obsessed lover wears the ring until death, but the addition of the phrase “like that” gives the lines a matter-of-fact, conversational, almost casual tone. Such distance and reserve recall Charles Simic, Wisława Szymborska, and particularly Vasko Popa. Though the subject matter of Lowe’s poems does not always allow her to achieve the same gravitas as these masters, her nimble juxtapositions and ease with metaphor indicate a darkly humorous sensibility.

This sensibility, this awareness that the world is a dark and complex place, prevents Lowe from dwelling on the usual dramas of the self; she is not satisfied to offer simple first-person lyrics that can easily fall into solipsism, narcissism, or sentimentality. Instead, it is self’s observations of the outside world that creates drama in these poems. In a 2010 Ploughshares blog post, Lowe explains her inspiration for “The Pilgrim is Bridled and Bespectacled,” one in a series of pilgrim poems: “I have very poor vision and went a long time unable to see properly. When I first put on glasses at 14, I felt both enthralled and devastated—the world was so much more (more beautiful, more disappointing) than what I had imagined it to be.” Beauty and devastation intersect throughout these poems, but perhaps most clearly in the collection’s title poem, where the beauty of Nijinsky brings out the worst in those around him. At his autopsy, the doctors slice open his feet “to see if there was some trick, / an explanation / for the man who could fly.” The final stanzas read:

But the foot was that
of a normal man

after all, after all that
and they sewed the foot together again.

The repeated phrase “after all” subtly indicates the speaker’s disdain for the doctors’ actions, yet she remains unable or unwilling to intervene. This objective distance allows Lowe to reveal the scene in all its beauty and quiet devastation. This poem, as with most of the collection, concerns itself not with the speaker’s personal opinions, but with presenting a character or moment in all its accuracy, however flattering or not. Throughout these poems, the unobtrusive speakers step out of the way to offer the acutely observed renderings full resonance. Lowe is a poet genuinely more interested in how we all attempt to apprehend the processes of the universe than her own private expressions; these are poems that not only invite, but demand the presence of the outside world.

—Christine Kitano

Christine KitanoChristine Kitano is the author of Birds of Paradise (Lynx House Press). She teaches literature and creative writing at Texas Tech University. Recent poems are published or forthcoming in Tar River Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, Miramar, Atticus Review, and Newfound Journal. Find her online at www.christinekitano.com.