The After Party by Jana Prikryl
Tim Duggan Books
Penguin Random House
320 Front Street West, Suite 1400
Toronto, Ontario, M5V 3B6
2016, 112 pp., $20.00, 9781101906231
Such a gigantic abstraction withheld
makes a person feel
more creaturely than is proper. (from The Tempest)
Jana Prikryl’s debut book of poetry, The After Party, thoroughly compels and unapologetically alienates its reader. This ambivalent effect is appropriate given the text’s own investment in ambiguity, paradox, split-sense, and enigma. Everyone I’ve spoken to comes away from this book with dissimilar—even conflicting—observations. The sparse language, non-descript landscapes, narrative intractability, and tendency toward heady abstraction over descriptive closure generate a highly original but fugacious aesthetic of controlled imprecision. The poems are, above all, interested in the arbitrary and associative movement of consciousness; narrative sensibilities give way to the erratic evolution of thought.
Prikryl’s family immigrated to Southern Ontario from Ostrava, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) when Prikryl was just six. She would go on to live in the US, the UK, and Dublin, Ireland. Her nomadic beginnings would in many ways come to constitute the thematic fascinations found in her work. The poems thus concern themselves with childhood, ancestry, inheritance, time, loss, place and placelessness, but the treatment is indirect, the tone lofty rather than sentimental. The poems are redolent of Eliot, or Ashbery: self-reflexive, ironic, proceeding unpredictably through meditative spaces.
Despite such detectable influences, Prikryl’s work is very much its own. The strange style of the text—its discreet tone, shifting metres, and sprawling content—has the awkward lilt and mouthfeel of pronouncing a new or foreign word. Prikryl does not shy away from the hyper-intellectual, either, with titles like “Benvenuto Tisi’s Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta Pulling a Boat with the Statue of Cybele” and “It Doesn’t Work Out as I Read Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida.” Prikryl’s poetic command is quite astonishing; the speakers’ declarative authority carefully lends structure to the collection’s abstruse inclinations. Still, this control is ever-tested by the poems’ constant assertion that life advances the way thought does: unexpectedly; that it “looms up unannounced, always a surprise” (“New Life”). Much like the angels carved above the sanctuary in the eighteenth-century church of “A Motion in Action,” The After Party can itself be described as “muscled gymnastic laboring / to […] outpace the extension of any perspective”; indeed, all the book’s “ingenuity is spent like this.”
The allure of Prikryl’s work is in part its reader-resistant style. On the back cover, John Ashbery describes the text as a “private biosphere,” subject only to its own laws of growth and evolution, and I would agree. Each poem submits to its own creative manoeuvres, demanding a hard-won digestion, and steadily deepening “like a mind accruing images” (“Argus, or Fear of Flying”).
Structure & Style
The After Party is divided into two sections. The first (composed of 32 poems) features a playful address to a pillow, strange conceit-adopting poems like “The Letters of George Kennan and John Lukacs, Interspersed with Some of My Dreams” and “Stanley Cavell Pauses on the Aventine,” as well as melancholic and meditative poems like “Understudy” and “Genealogy”—which read like occasional poems softly dissecting a scene—among other curious pieces. The first section establishes the fascinations taken up more comprehensively in the second section, which is titled “Thirty Thousand Islands” after the thousands of islands strung along the east side of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron in Ontario, near where Prikryl spent time as a child. “Thirty Thousand Islands” presents a number of short, untitled poems that may or may not be considered a sequence—the poems are loosely affiliated, and strung out (themselves island-like), over many mostly-blank pages.
The Canadian landscape of “Thirty Thousand Islands” has a personal meaning and metaphorical import for Prikryl, though she admits in a Paris Review interview that her “openly sentimental debt” to her time in Canada doesn’t extend to the Canadian literary tradition, which she happens “to feel little affinity for.” Indeed, Prikryl’s aesthetic does not have recognizably Canadian influences. In documenting the natural world, Prikryl doesn’t siphon her observations through the landscape so much as she imaginatively projects onto it in order to make more abstruse examinations. She is wary of presenting the landscape too vividly, and relies on unusual imagery that, while evocative, prefers the elusive and cerebral over the visually specific:
An animal tone
to the granite
as it masses and hides in the water.
The trees that lean from the rock
Precise description defies the poet, or the poet defies it. Many of the poems advance in a sensory manner; any hint of a landscape is gleaned in a piecemeal fashion, context is often left out altogether, and the poems are scantily populated with figures (besides those of thought and speech). The tone is an unlikely blend of childlike deciphering (feelingly, without detail) and lofty, erudite observation:
Lady in the tall forehead
beating your winglike
eyelids down, feel free, don’t hesitate, etc.
She never employs a meta-language,
a pose, a deliberate
image. That’s what “Sanctity” is. (from “It Doesn’t Work Out …”)
It’s tempting to underscore the poems’ moments of orphic anxiety and to see The After Party as a collection documenting the crisis of home-seeking—Prikryl’s migratory history perhaps enables this treatment. But more interesting than these moments of crisis regarding place and placelessness is the control exercised around them. The speakers are deliberate, canny; they embrace the tension between the familiar and the foreign as fertile ground for exploration, like the speaker of “New Life,” who looks out “a window onto something green and unconflicted.”
These poems are more interested in how to be than in where to be: “I don’t have anywhere / to be except this unambiguous shore,” says one speaker (“Benvenuto …”). Of course, this “unambiguous shore” is deliberately left ambiguous by Prikryl, a paradox that exemplifies how most of her poems advance. The historical is coloured by the imaginative and the hypothetical. The declarative tone of the speakers so often acts against the poems’ awareness of contingency—but this tension is muted; there is room in each poem for a number of truths, a number of interpretive possibilities. The truth of one poem (and many truths are reeled off with conviction) is never the truth of another. The collection comes to accept place as both constitutive and arbitrary. It asks what is left of the mind, of the individual, in a state of ongoing transition through time and space. Place is a metaphor through which the text works out what it means to be a situated self, to have a locus of identity that one’s consciousness declares. There is an ambivalence about whether place is internally- or externally-derived, and whether one inhabits or creates a space, as is exemplified by the equivocal line breaks in “To Tell of Bodies Changed”:
A painter once squared himself against a difficult question
and said no one could just create
but isn’t it true
that expectation builds a neighbourhood
and there is nowhere else that you can live.
As a senior editor at The New York Review of Books, Prikryl has the critical awareness that any strong editor is wont to have, and it permeates her work. The book sifts through and adopts various strategies to confront the poignant quandary of human displacement—not only literal displacement, but the difficulty of being embodied, of asserting one’s presence in the world: “if narrative remains elusive, I think both writer and reader are forced to work to orient themselves, to stay alert, like a foreigner in a new city at night,” she says in her Paris Review interview. Any anxiety around place and inhabitancy in Prikryl’s work is assumed from the outset, worked out, and casually self-aware—the speaker “reason[s] with herself / deliberately” and doesn’t submit to apprehension while “walking one island / or other.” She is accepting, met in her wandering by the comfort of an “old flame / sufficiency” (“New York New York”).
Thirty Thousand Islands
Mr. Dialect pauses on a bluff
twice pink in the spreading lakes,
his suit bespoke
and out of style.
So begins the section “Thirty Thousand Islands,” which reads more like a montage than a sequence; the poems aren’t progressive or directional, but wander back and forth over the island landscape. The passing of time is focal, but not chronological: repetition and recurrence permit the poems to converse without being reliant on one another for a sense of development. Time is confounded and unsystematically inflected to direct our attention to arguably more interesting relations, such as the mediation of oneself with one’s environment, and the meditative acquiescence that wandering entails:
the pulsing air of the unsayable
would maybe sense
how certain belated sounds busy
themselves restitching its abolished movements.
Surprisingly, we get a recurring protagonist in “Thirty Thousand Islands.” Mr. Dialect is an outmoded man, a “compulsive translator” parodically composed of “gestures that the artist / oversteps.” We join Mr. Dialect as he journeys by boat between the islands. Distinct by virtue of his foreignness, he breakfasts beside “caramel brunette(s)” and hangs his Parisian shirts “cuff to cuff” in the boat’s hanging locker. He is in a state of paralysis: “The question was for many weeks / should Mr. D do something.”
Mr. Dialect is reminiscent of polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito figure, who appears in a number of Herbert’s poems as a stoic and often humorous figure navigating a world of moralistic calamity. Mr. Dialect is less insistent, however. He isn’t a vessel for the poet’s didacticism. His dandyism challenges the sort of masculinist heroism that Mr. Cogito embodies. He finds comfort in his quotidian activities, and betrays but a whiff of Prufrockian defeat. He is adrift in the way the poems are adrift, and dawdles about, reflective and tinkering, but never assertive. He is often absent throughout the section; his vague tale is interspersed with poems beginning in a more contemplative and occasional mode: “A set of rocks like mountaintops whose mountainflanks / are plunged in a body of water” and “My mind continued composing its account at night.” An “I” is mingled with the “he” of Mr. Dialect, as though another speaker journeys with him over or through the fragmented islands of the poems. The first poem in the section describes “the other one / who is not upside down / in the lake” and who “sends regrets.” Occasionally, Mr. Dialect himself speaks jarringly in the first person, adding to the stratification of voices through the section, and diluting any semblance of a clear narrative.
Mr. Dialect, whose name suggests the embodiment and importance of local custom and language, is challenged by a competing perspective that winds its way through the poems, one which asserts the failure of language to say anything definitive, and the irrelevance of the islands as distinct locales whose borders must be preserved. One island bleeds into the next, the landscape is abstracted from, and those aboard the boat do not possess a feeling of control because “[t]he water forms a fact / of greater power.” The poem recognizes that the insistence on nationhood and locality—and by extension the human attachment to place and home-making—are human superimpositions, an arbitrary exercise in the cultivation of meaning; in nature, there is only the rock and water’s “immunity (sublime) / to our ongoing / performances.” This “shedding” of particulars is best captured by a poem toward the end of the book:
Not lakes but islands.
Not islands but circulars.
Not circulars but those very small achievements
that persuade us we are insulated from circumstance.
Not circumstance but family chronicles
shedding item by item their particulars
like desirable women stepping out of their clothes.
Not their clothes but their parliaments.
Not parliaments but a national literature.
Not land surveyors but aeons.
Not aeons but islands.
And not lakes.
“Thirty Thousand Islands” gestures to the islands’ interaction with the elements and the cosmos as a broader network of not-merely-human things. It envisions a place that isn’t insisted upon, “a single undulating island / without, perhaps, the need of a name.” Nonetheless, the long poem is also an elegy for a past place of consequence, and so “let(s) the fallacy of place / live out its lease.” The section rakes over the landscape with its various rhetorical instruments, entertaining contending perspectives with ease, finding that “the answer in the end was / the questioning.”
The Levity of Legacy
The After Party takes up the problem of time and the conditional most interestingly. There are poems that pool the past and present, letting them interact with and distort each other. The most striking example of this is the poem “A Package Tour”:
It’s not untrue to say that Paní Barvíková was a great-grandmother
or she and three others were great-grandmothers
although they were unknown to one another
and to themselves as great-grandmothers.
Before those four, there were eight. Then sixteen,
and at thirty-two we could charter a bus (with room
for their trunks) and tour the Loire, chateaux already then antique.
The speaker’s collapse of her ancestral past into the ostensible present plays out in an imaginary “costume drama of uncertain date” and emphasizes the friction between anachronistic worldviews. The speaker, presumably a contemporary career woman who finds it important “to do some work of significance,” observes her great-grandmothers with “[p]uddles of rouge under [their] eyes” and struggles to relate to them. At a point, she mistakes her ancestors for other players, even while an intimacy grows between them: “we’ve grown close because now / there’s something close to rivalry between us.” They are her “mothers,” even as she is “their guide,” and they are skeptical of what she offers “besides information.”
In this fictional confrontation, a familiar hierarchy persists: the typical, seemingly timeless dynamic of generational division and the difficulty of resolving such differences. The poem challenges the idealistic presumption that meeting one’s forebears might be a romantic, meaningful affair, and explores one’s indebtedness to their cultural and social moment.
The poem ends when the speaker leaves these women after recognizing that she doesn’t “depend on them to feel entire”:
I hated to leave them
I couldn’t refrain from saying
in their bad marriages.
And then I was here,
remembering the ovals of their faces
like blank money,
as if this could win me some advantage,
as if it might incline you to be generous.
The “gentle claim” the grandmothers lay on her near the beginning of the poem—“From time to time / one of them would touch my hair or take my arm”—amounts to empty currency, “blank money.” The great-grandmothers, too, “Quietly in clusters / … agree their lives meant something regardless” of meeting their great-granddaughter.
On the one hand, the poem reveals the futility of relying on legacy to make sense of one’s own identity and experience. The speaker finds the encounter inconsequential, and the figures of her past are uninterested in her. By perplexing time and space, and hypothesizing imaginatively, the poem gestures to the overblown significance of legacy. Yet the poem, like virtually every poem in this collection, is not always so decided. The pointlessness of encountering these women, of sharing with them what proves to be unshareable, isn’t utterly meaningless. Their exploited bodies, the “tapestries of politeness” that “hang substantially” between them, the fact that the most educated woman cowers “beside the poise of the French”—these recognitions have import and relevance for the speaker; they provoke a realization. The residues of social injustice and oppression once confronted by her great-grandmothers are shown to have persisted: “plus ça change,” she writes.
The poems of the first section are diverse and stand-alone in nature, but there are four short poems (what I’ve been calling “the tumble poems”), that appear intermittently and recall one another. They explore the themes of hope, home, return, and forward movement. Characteristically cryptic, they experiment with tautology and are infused with an emotional tenor that much of the collection skives off. Each is titled with a word stemming from the root word tumble, and their deviating etymologies exfoliate the poems’ semantic possibilities in different directions. The first poem, “Tumbler,” is a single-sentence epanalepsis:
It was too much
to hope for to
hope we would know
when too much was
too much to hope
The second, “Tumbril” (named for the cart used to transport prisoners to the guillotine in the eighteenth century) wonders whether “true hope” can only come “after every hope has lost / its head”—suggesting the bleak possibility of restored hope via literal or spiritual death. “Tombolo” (named for the strip of land connecting an island to the mainland) tells of the evacuation of these “hopes / to this island made of sand” until, eventually, the island is disrupted and “quarantines no hope anymore.” The last, “Tumblehome” (named for the slope of a ship’s hull) kills off this hope at long last, only to “heave it / over the side and drift / alone into the flat grey morning.” Ultimately, at the end of the sequence, the discarding of hope is how the boat stays afloat. The tumble poems are interesting because they build to a resolution uncharacteristic of the other poems in the collection. The abolishment of hope, they claim, is the only way to ensure that “the threat / of ambush by a hopelessness” is kept at bay. This “habit of prudence” is responsible for the speaker and company’s survival.
I began by treating the tumbler poems as a sequence to unlock—as latches to fiddle with—because I felt they might go somehow to the heart of the book. The tumble poems are complicated by paradox and ambiguity, saturated by periphrastic syntax and disconcerting repetition. Still, one great insight can be pulled from the tumble poems: expectation, the hope of having hope, is what threatens to ambush us; expectation detracts from present and future experience by over-determining the infinite potentialities therein. In this way, the tumble poems affirm what the rest of the collection proposes: there is nothing sacred or absolute about what has customarily been thought to provide human beings with meaning—hope, legacy, tradition, language. We gain solace by relinquishing these things—by letting whatever comes enter in—and the book as a whole is an experiment in this direction, a place where “the suspension of images / must be the very space / of love, its music” (“It Doesn’t Work Out …”).
At best, The After Party is a wonderfully textured feat, a platform upon which the reader might get a glimpse of untethered play and riff off their own set of obsessions and associations. At worst, the poems are self-revelling and frustratingly inaccessible. Nonetheless, the major insight of The After Party is epistemological in nature. Knowledge isn’t plainly discerned, but is either impenetrable or imaginary, decided by each through the arbitrary process of conviction. There is no Deep Truth to be had, no things in themselves. Prikryl’s poetry plays upon the surfaces of projection and presumption. “Metaphors swarm the surfaces of things,” but it isn’t clear that they ever get at the heart of them (“To Tell of Bodies Changed”). All we get is what “flows and thickens” in the face of what we would like to believe is supremely known (“Inverted Poem for the Fluoride Ladies of Pleasant Valley School”). There is a “spectrum of uniqueness” that is experience, perhaps, and that’s it (“Inverted Poem …”).
Falling hard against Prikryl’s occasionally uncompromising aesthetic does at least one vital thing: it awakens the reader to the reflexivity of process, as both reader and writer. The text, like the poem “Unrequited,” locates the human desire for “the law’s wide dry hands / trying to bucket the truth” and diverts our attention to the creative and chaotic forces alive in the world, ever-subverting our expectations and enriching our wanderings, should we admit them.
N. Grimaldi breathes, reads, and sometimes writes in Toronto. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2015.