Calibrations: On Niina Pollari’s Path of Totality

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Poet Niina Pollari’s second full-length collection, Path of Totality, embodies prismatic range. The poems move through memory, the sky, New York City, and grief’s shadow as they orbit the devastating loss of a child with precision and honesty. “What kind of music will you want to play, the funeral director asks” in the poem “Halloween.” “That kind of music doesn’t exist.” Here, the author offers a lyric record of loss and beholding the unexpected.

Pollari’s directness channels a familiarity that aches as much as it reassures. In “How to Read this Poem” she addresses the reader:

Maybe what I mean is

I am not smart and I want you to know

That if you feel you also aren’t

Then I understand

These lines read as instruction and invitation to the work. At the same time, they extend a sense of kinship, shared permission to not always understand. The straightforward voice primes the audience to leap alongside the author. Further, she writes: “I don’t want to think about my own death/I just want to get metaphysically larger” and the poem pulses toward expansion. The “I don’t want . . . /I just want . . . ” logic offers certainty amid vast concepts such as the past, death, the metaphysical, what it means to intelligently sift through our experiences to create art. The precise phrasing and tenor anchor our attention to a concrete vantage point from which we witness self-awareness unfold.

This refreshingly wise voice infuses the collection and offers a portrait of loss attuned to complexity and nuance. In “Embarrassment” Pollari describes the unrelenting despair and embarrassment she felt “like two loyal dogs, licking the palms of my hands to let me know they were there every time I paused.” The poem opens into a fearless, candid meditation on embarrassment, the feeling’s relationship to pregnancy, and the word’s etymological roots. “I had already indicated interest in witnessing myself as a mother; the death of my baby was a humiliation of my desire,” she writes. As the prose stanzas accumulate, they build a structural logic; each deepens the confession of embarrassment. The form becomes a vessel in which each sentence offers an opportunity to explore and complicate. The poem validates the feeling, not with consolatory or redemptive value, but as a facet of grief worth investigation.

This astute watchfulness witnesses the ordinary and revels in the disorienting whirl of what’s familiar. In this light, each poem recalibrates grief in a context that honors life and the significance of paying attention. Tender perception flavors the ode “Poem for Pigeon,” which expands from observation into a meditation on resilience:

Cooing eating shitting

Hiding its half-assed nest

In a raggedy bodega awning

Or building it around a row of bird-control spikes

Using the sharp metal to hold up sticks

And cigarette butts and eventually eggs

These lines carry the urge to live, nurture, and persevere despite a structure intended to hamper life. The pigeon makes a life from messiness, builds a home in unwelcoming spaces.

Throughout the collection New York City reflects a unique landscape of loss, a space as full of grief as it is of everyday life, scientific facts, memory, motherhood, healing, love, and hope. “Urine Season,” for instance, takes up the city’s summer bouquet and bends it into a reckoning with expectation: “Last time it was urine season, I was expecting. That’s how you say it. You don’t say what you’re expecting.” The retrospective acknowledgement is honest and poignant; a heartbreaking new lens through which we consider common pregnancy phrasing, expecting. The poem concludes: “Some will say this is not a poem for them. But I say it’s a poem for anyone who ever expected anything.” This poem knows two versions of the same person may stand on the same street corner in different timelines; the same scent can mean something different within each life. The same word can land differently, depending on who speaks. Expectation and outcome are two distinct facets of longing; the poem invites readers to reckon with the precarious line between our desires and fates.

The natural world’s presence throughout these poems prompts similarly bracing reflection. The titular poem references the zone from which spectators witness a solar eclipse’s complete effects, in which the moon obscures the sun, but for a ring of light at the edge. In “Sunflower” Pollari describes the somber calla lily emblem on her hospital room door, the sunflower emblems outside other maternity ward doors. “Sunflowers are like a total eclipse,” she writes, “They are dark in the middle, with a corona that extends.” It’s a reassessment of the sunflower; the brightness at the edges and dark centers. Further, the speaker describes how animals and plants perform their nocturnal rituals at the time of eclipse: “When the eclipse is over, they experience stress because what happened is not what they expected.” Addressing her child, she writes: “I realize now that you came from the eclipse…You were beautiful and world-ending.” In a grief group which she attends, each member brings a flower they add to a bouquet honoring their child, and she contributes a sunflower. In this striking image, the participants are the corona, light radiating beyond the blooms, the gorgeous, aching core of what brought them to the same room.

As the speaker of “Sunflower” recasts the flower’s symbolic meaning in her life, “Love” traces a similar transformation. Pollari describes feeling bodily zaps after her daughter’s death, writing: “My body was dumb, and it didn’t know what had happened. My dumb body was trying to find the baby.” The poignant confession speaks to the cellular mother-child bond, an emotional-physical connection that transcends absence. The poem reveals this sensation also affects those whose children lived as the speaker describes her sister experiencing the “zaps” as well “as if to remind her to be vigilant in love.” This observant attention to love resurfaces further on. The author shares she “shied away from filling in the details” in a pregnancy book until after the first trimester, “I’d been afraid of filling it in because of the risks, before.” The singular “before” qualifies conscientious preparations and fine-tuning of expectation, waiting to want for fear of not witnessing the desire fulfilled. Yet the sense of believing one thing and learning something else in the wake of loss turns the poem, evoking a seismic emotional shift in the lines: “Now I think: Why not throw yourself wholeheartedly into loving? Love every detail. Love every day. You can’t control the outcome; we are all careening.”

With an exacting eye, forthright mind, and vulnerable sensibility Pollari stewards her exploration of longing, expectation, and loss into metaphysical terrain. Path of Totality affords us an infinite wideness in which prose poems and lineated verse accumulate; each distinct shape builds a tender and moving meditation. This work dives in the far reaches, refracts each nuanced shade of grief it discovers, to reveal fierce love at the center.

Gina Nutt is the author of the essay collection Night Rooms (Two Dollar Radio). Her writing has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Joyland, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She lives in Ithaca, New York. More from this author →