In the first sonnet of the sonnet sequence “People Like Us,” the speaker says,
“By day I play nonstop if/then, internally pluck
a love me, love me not lament…”
This game—the jostle between possibilities and outcomes, the constant, obsessive evaluation of one’s self and the value of that self to others—is at play within each of the poems in Jessica Piazza’s debut collection, Interrobang, which was selected as the 2011 recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize.
The experience of reading these poems is like wandering through a hall of mirrors. Many versions of the self are presented, and soon it becomes unclear where the others end and the next one begins. In some cases the self flickers among its own shattered components, other times it strives for definition and containment. The language of these poems is not simple, and it is not always direct. These pieces are both complicated and contemplative; they are reflective and faceted.
Here, in “Apeirophilia (Love of infinity),” Piazza explores the physical limits of the body—how it can or cannot join with another—and how those limits affect our symbolic relationship with wholeness:
“…You say that if we pantomime
shared flesh, it doesn’t mean we’re whole. Discrete.
But we collide; we make tautology
of us. We’re what we are because we’re what
we are—so where’s your tangent? I can be
a line, extend the distance to you, in-
finite; bisect you at a fixed point…”
This questioning of the self—what drives it, what limits it—operates much like a doubtful, but equally eloquent counterpart to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ courageous assertion, “Whát I dó is me: for that I came.” And it is evident that the sure-footed music of Hopkins, as well as the quiet, elegantly controlled voice of Edna St. Vincent Millay, can be heard echoing through many of these poems, including this one, “Thalassophilia (Love of the sea):”
“The Gulf gulls’ chants at dusk all sound alike
to me, but symphonies of secret tones
must prove expressiveness beyond the spike
of elegiac grief I hear. I’ve known
only another coast, but lyrics hold.”
Piazza’s musings are constant and anxiety-ridden; they ricochet off every page. She examines relationships, griefs, and, most of all, obsessions. Aside from the three sonnet sequences, each poem addresses a specific love or fear, with titles including “Apodysophilia (Love of undressing)” and “Eisoptrophobia (Fear of mirrors).” It’s scary, this type of human examination, and Piazza seeks to reign in the limitless capacity for reflection and distortion with her use of precisely structured forms—mostly sonnets—and intricately woven sonic textures.
These forms represent an element of control amid the noise of the unresting mind. Each stressed and unstressed syllable helps drive the poem towards an end, perhaps even an answer. The need to end each line coincides with the need to take a breath, the need to rest a moment, and ultimately the sonnet provides a frame, so to speak, through which to view the self. It allows for distance and safety.
Yet, sometimes Piazza’s attention to precisely sculpted language allows for unexpected moments of quietude and simplicity—those poetic instances that each poet strives for, wherein an old thing begins to mean something new, important, and multitudinous. Where there’s a glimmer of something precious just beginning to break through the surface. I can see it, here, in “Anablephobia (Fear of looking up):”
“One day I heard a man say that his wife
gave up the ghost. But he was like a ghost.
Maybe that’s the truth. We die to leave
the losses that we cannot give away.”
These poems are not afraid to struggle through themselves. They’re aware of themselves in that way. Nothing—no bit of information, no moment of understanding or acceptance—is going to come forth easily, and so they ponder and postulate and literally pray. They stare at their own strange and frightening reflections. It’s Piazza’s steadfast voice, amid doubt, bereavement, and chaos, and her commitment to pursue regardless, that allows us to access her poems. We identify with the singular, unwavering desire to know, above all things, ourselves. In this fourth sonnet from the sonnet sequence “What I Hold,” it is easy to sense an echo of those selves, too—our own selves—as we finish the book, as we close the pages, as we continue to be who we are:
“…I need to get
perspective now, and so, unusual
as it may seem, I’ll stop to look outside
these lines; to ask if it is sin to pull
myself away from this, or prayer to ride
the story out. But who will answer me?
I’m not a girl who has epiphanies.”