Pirates plunder. Pirates navigate by wit and savvy and force. They intercept us somewhere between where we were and where we think we are going to end up. They are the enemies of intention. Where we might ask, Where is life taking me? A pirate asks, Where can I take life?
Killer title is the first thing I thought when I came across Keely Hyslop’s debut collection, Things I Say to Pirates on Nights When I Miss You, which was selected by Major Jackson as the 2011 winner of the Michael Rubin Book Award. It is a killer title and the poems in the book live up to its promise. Hyslop’s website describes the book as a “three part exploration of the mythologies of empowerment and victimization, both official and personal, that an individual uses as the raw material with which to construct a cohesive identity.” It is obvious that Hyslop has thought hard about this work. The poems show that she is a devoted student of poetry—one who writes from instinct and heart, is willing to take risks, and allows for mystery, but also recognizes the philosophical and intellectual forces that move through her writing. This is a difficult balance to strike. Poetry is hard work, both emotionally and intellectually, and Hyslop isn’t afraid to walk the rope between intelligence and heart, skill and instinct. The best poems in the book mix these elements beautifully.
The core of the book is about fate and purpose in life—how we follow or avoid it and how we make choices that move us toward or away from what we most desire. And, always, the outside forces of history, society, and family that throw us off balance or give us strength to weather the storm, and the curious way they can do both at the same time.
Hyslop begins with a section titled Letters to Anne Bonny which engage with the historical female pirate. The poems include persona poems in the voice of Anne Bonny and prose poem letters from a more modern speaker who seems to be looking for a way to navigate both Anne Bonny’s story and her own life. The poems in this section are smartly complicated, swimming between admiration and pity, fierceness and vulnerability, romance and destruction. In one poem, the speaker tells Anne Bonny, “All the things I wish for seem to be things I’m ashamed to be wanting in the first place so when I get them I can’t enjoy them. Have you ever had this problem?” I can’t help but smile at a speaker who goes to a pirate as a kind of Dear Abby, looking for advice about life. What can Anne Bonny tell her but:
When you feel something pulling you under
you look to me
as if I can tell you what freedom is,
but I can’t give you your sea legs.
You have to steal them from me.
Hyslop sees and avoids the trap of casting Bonny as either a victim or a hero. She recognizes that the only Anne Bonny we can know is one from a story we tell ourselves, a story the speaker of the poems is telling herself and the reader at the same time. A story gathered from fragments of history and herself combined into a narrative that defies resolution. These poems breach time and manage a tragic immediacy that keeps us wanting to know more. By the end of the sequence, Anne Bonny has pirated herself out of the story:
But it’s too late. She’s already disappearing
into the marginal space between
ocean and sky.
Anne Bonny sails herself like a boat
out of the stack of history books I’m holding in my arms.
In the subsequent sections of the book, Hyslop turns her lens to more personal territory, exploring family history, mythology, and the very idea of “femaleness” in poems that are raw, risky, and sharply imaginative. Many of these poems read as a bridging between youth and adulthood. Poems like “Frankenstein,” “A Small Madness,” and “Playing Make-Believe With My Mother’s Choices” show speakers who are attempting to make sense of family history. They ask, How did you do it? How will I do it? And the answers are never easy. In these poems, we see a woman becoming a woman. One who sees that life is fucking complicated; so much more complicated than we thought it would be when we were young and “just wanted a normal life.”
In places, the poems feel over-intellectualized, becoming commentary on ideas or emotions rather than the “thing” itself. In these moments, the poems lose some immediacy, waylaid by a speaker who seems almost too smart for her own good. So, we get lines like:
Biology bickers with existential experience.
Later sends flowers and an underdeveloped theory
of the relation of sex to brain chemistry.
Yet, even these sections can read as an alternative attempt to understand, a stepping back from emotion to see if reason or logic can help navigate the complexities of experience. Eventually, we see that, like with Anne Bonny, our lives inevitably become only the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening to us. Our choices lie in how we relate to those experiences and where we choose to draw the always shifting X that marks our identity. Hyslop’s debut collection illuminates both an approach to life and an approach to poetry that is worth exploring more fully.