"Caught at Half Gasp"

The prose poem spars with the conventions of reading established by the paragraph. We read from margin to margin, rather than from line to line, and the block of words on the page (everything within this space "goes together") recalls the requirements of printing, the book on the shelf in the store, standardization, control. Eve Alexandra does not choose to "defy the drag of the prosaic." She embraces it. The prosaic is empowering; like a sonnet, it is the necessary formal condition for staging her marvelous rebellions. What’s inside this form is scheming and flirting. You enter every poem in medias res. "There were tiny hounds sniffing out their gilded cages." "She fed us fiddleheads, the tiny fists of Brussels sprouts, cupcakes, even the broken song of the deer’s neck. Singing."

To use a figure from Kenneth Burke: We have been invited to a party. We open a door; there is a conversation taking place among a number of people. We enter and listen. "The beginning of this story is lost to the water . . . The girl is leagues and leagues from the first kiss of prologue . . ." Something pre-existing and outside the poem is determining the poem. No one stops to offer any explanations, although there are numerous warnings, predictions, assertions: "Be careful if you take this flower into your house," says the speaker who is a peony; "There are a thousand ants living inside, but you will only see one or two at a time"; "The city was singing. Someone was taking pictures." This last is the syntax of dream reporting: simple sentences, no modifying subordination. This is my dream, take it or leave it.

Eve Alexandra and I have been in touch since the mid-nineties when she was my graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. Last year she sent me a manuscript of some of her new poems. In preparation for this essay, I emailed her at the University of Vermont, where she is teaching, "Why the prose poem?" (Even her poems with line breaks seem chips off that block.) She emailed back: "re the prose poem, I think of the ocean--of any body of water--and all it contains--everything that is submerged below the surface--that shoe, fish, shard of glass."

So, we are meant to be at sea. The prose poem is a form of submersion, writing without what Karen Volkman calls "the safety net of the line break." "Drowning seems a particularly female death," Alexandra writes, but these are certainly not Stevie Smith’s featureless, horizonless waters both tragic and comic. Eve Alexandra’s poems are not drowning, but waving.

Often in this work we are put in the uncomfortable position of being the voyeur. Eve Alexandra’s "drag of the prosaic" is role playing, excess, and contradiction. She is Narcissus: "I go to the river. My legs are frogs legs. Tiny wands, see how they glisten. A thousand fish swim through me. My hair unfurls . . . Look how it opens, beautiful world." She is Dickinson in the tomb that is both haven and void. The underwater is vulnerable blankness, the endangered silence, Eden, before it is colonized by logos: "This is the place of what-is-not . . . Sound turned to silence--like cloth on the floor is the shed skin of the lover. Like sheets bereft of the shapes that slept." In this silence, ironically, the narrator dons the role of Adam, busily naming "A is for apple, B is for bone, for boat, C is for candle, for cunt, for cut."

One of the things that I find compelling about these poems is that, while the narrator is seductive and beautiful, she is not pleasing. She does not offer comfort. She is not kind or solicitous. Like Ariel, who "performs the tempest," for Prospero, Alexandra, too, is a tempest-ress: these are the storms and drownings of her own invention. Like Ariel’s bedeviling and gorgeous tunes composed to tease the sorrowful ("Full fathom five thy father lies . . . Those are pearls that were his eyes," Ariel croons to the grieving Ferdinand) these are poems of the taunt and tease, the razor in the apple. Whatever we find lovely and seductive (girlishness, sexuality, the poem) we will also find uncomfortable. Once, after a talk in which she deconstructed Wordsworth’s Prelude, the critic Guyatri Spivack was asked if, despite her profound arguments with the poem, she did not find the Prelude beautiful. She answered, "I find beauty in that which undermines me. It is a tragic situation." I cannot imagine a phrase more apt for describing Eve Alexandra’s admirable project: hers is a work of undermining beauty.

This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal published by the Academy of American Poets for its members. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.