As much as Intruder makes us look at the difficult, the painful, the ugly, it also gives us a chance to watch the insides of a snow globe swirl, to enjoy beauty in all its victory, through images, rhythms and dreamscapes, for moments, throughout these pages.
Jill Bialosky’s third volume of poems, Intruder, presents a series of intimate scenes. The worlds she creates uncover the most hidden of our truths, the thoughts, desires and fears that exist, usually, just below the surface of our consciousnesses. These aren’t the huge secrets which haunt the front of our minds with guilt or longing. These reveal a more quiet awareness, the slideshow we glimpse in the just-falling-asleep moments.Bialosky gracefully and accurately captures the intensity of the most private places in our minds. A reader may feel forced into the role of intruder, voyeur or eavesdropper.
This type of witnessing, this level of intimacy, may cause a reader to want to turn away. Bialosky second guesses this thought, addressing it in the fourth poem of “Intimacies: Portrait of an Artist,” a series based on paintings by Eric Fischel. After acknowledging our discomfort with the private moments the poems invite us to see and understand, Bialosky gently pulls us further in, causing us to surrender to our role in these scenarios:
I know you feel you’ve intruded
on their privacy, entered their secrets
and lies, invaded their private space.
I know you want to leave. But the boy,
he’s you, isn’t he? Doesn’t he make you ache?
Our own grieving, romantic disappointments, creative gestures, attractions and terrors become a part of the volume. As much as one wants to be looking at a scene inside a snow globe, to be able to perceive from higher ground and with a sheet of glass between oneself and the people, landscapes, and emotions of the poems, the reader is slipped into these scenes. One is coaxed into collaboration, taking a hand in the poem-making process, when reading this volume.
Sometimes the role of collaborator feels closer to accomplice. Disaster and destruction are portrayed as sublime, like in the first poem of section one, “The Seduction,” which reads, “and it was gorgeous, dazzling,/the orange and reds of such ruin.” This poem continues by asserting that if one tries to halt the onslaught of destruction, one can’t see:
Once the water met the flames
the fire transfigured into smoke so thick
they could no longer see
. . .
she thought it must have been her internal desires
gone askew. . .
These lines convey the message that one must look into, walk through the terrible to regain balance. This is not a re-tread of Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime. We are never relieved by standing at a satisfactory distance from the text, enjoying it as fiction, giving us the ability to feel pleasure. Though as readers we know this is a book, we also must admit we are culprits in the truth the volume unveils. The implication is that humans enjoy destruction, are “prepared for disaster” (“The Seduction”). In “The Myth of Creation,” she writes, “Do not be afraid,/the voice said, as if fear were another definition for happiness.” Every time we are caught in traffic slowing near the sight of an accident, we prove the powerful attraction that destruction holds.
Bialosky often writes those who people these poems into disaster: “An avalanche set loose. . . .He falls with her.” (poem VI of “The Skiers”) Her poem, “The Figure,” talks of the violence of the creative act: “The paintbrush unleashed a river of blood.” These actions are also put in kinship with romance. In the same poem in “The Skiers,” the fall is followed by, “And as they/fall is aroused to love her.” “The Skiers” is a beautiful and curious sonnet sequence in which a pair of lovers, in a kind of dream-scape, are continually interrupted by downhill skiers. Each poem approaches the scene through a different lens, showing Bialosky to be refreshingly generous in her vision and curiosity of the world. While at times seemingly personal, the poems are always reaching out for other perspectives.
In the course of this reaching, Bialosky’s work moves seamlessly from the concrete detail to the abstract concept and vice versa. From “The Poet Contemplates the Nature of Reality”:
. . .Freud said work is as important
as love to the soul—and at night she sat with a boy,
forcing him to practice his violin, helping him recite his notes.
Bialosky’s weaving of the world of ideas with the everyday helps her accomplish the good work of poetry, which, at its best, aids readers in the process of seeing newly what we’ve grown accustomed to taking for granted. Theater artist Robert Wilson, in an interview about his opera “Einstein on the Beach,” said if you take a candelabra and put it on a stage on a large formal dining table, no one will see the candelabra, but if you place the candelabra on a stage and set it on a huge boulder, viewers will see the candelabra again. Bialosky manages the task of giving readers new sight in a much less obvious way than Wilson proposes. Poetic sight becomes a natural extension of the everyday, as in the poem “Dreaming of Two Worlds Coexisting in Harmony” in which a poet is sitting on a deck reading about Odysseus and Calypso while “[i]nside the Knicks were on and she could hear the cheers/and cursing through the screen. On the lawn were two birds.”
Because of her comfort with both the domestic and the lofty, Bialosky has been compared to Sylvia Plath, Louise Gluck, and Louise Bogan. However, this grouping of women seems reductionist. Grouping her only with other poets who are also women recalls a scene from the movie “Pollack” in which the artist visits fellow-painter Lee Krasner’s studio for the first time and asserts, “You’re a damn good woman painter.” Krasner, played by Marcia Gay Harden, responds with a blink of disappointment, as if she’s been stung by the comment.
As Bialosky is as equally skilled in the realm of ideas as she is in the concrete, her work just as easily makes her a descendant of Wallace Stevens. The ninth sonnet in “The Skiers” uses Stevens’ “Gray Room” strategy of bringing what’s absent in a space present by noticing and naming what’s not there: “Where are/the hummingbirds, jays, and falcons?” The volume also obsesses on the nature of the creative process and how it creates and is created by the actual world. From “The Poet Contemplates the Sunflowers”:
This is how she imagines it. A stillness.
He enters the room and is not afraid.
Once the poet watched a fence being torn down
In this poem, the lines between the poetic imagination and the observed world are blurred. This alternating between ideas and the sensory world also recalls the exquisite poetry of Jack Gilbert.
Bialosky herself defies the poet’s identity as being defined by gender, as the volume’s ninth poem with “The Poet” in the title, “The Poet Confronts the Self” has the female poet confronting a male “self”—or vice versa, depending on how one interprets where the confrontation begins. The poem begins:
She took off his coat of envy.
She took off his sweater of anger.
She took off his shirt of resentment.
Is this who I am? he said,
naked of the wounds
of his multifarious nature.
As much as Intruder makes us look at the difficult, the painful, the ugly, it also gives us a chance to watch the insides of a snow globe swirl, to enjoy beauty in all its victory, through images, rhythms and dreamscapes, for moments, throughout these pages:
And for one moment the world revolved
around her like a sea of shimmering stars
where she was the center of the universe,
where she shut the door and no one dared enter,
where she dreamt of lovers who would never want her,
where the rain fell regardless. (“Myth of Creation”)
Passages like these remind the reader that there is joy in the process of the deep diving we do when we open a book of poetry or set our pen to a blank page, that it is, to use the title of one of Bialosky’s poems, a “Cathedral of Wonder.”