In fairy tales, the woods are a dream-space where nothing is quite what it seems. Light and shadow play tricks, sounds come from odd directions, and paths are easily lost. In Midwood, poet Jana Prikryl leads us into a place dense with glimmering detail, where shapes seem to move just beyond our field of vision. There is serenity here, but behind that serenity is an awareness that panic might set in at any moment.
Begun as a project during COVID-19 sheltering-in-place orders, Midwood reads as many things: a reflection on midlife, a meditation on ambition and desire, an exercise in keeping one’s cool while parenting during a time of uncertainty and upheaval. The short poems (many are less than a dozen lines long) were composed in early morning, during the stolen moments before Prikryl’s young son would wake. The resulting collection is a sequence of immediate and surreal dream-recollections. The poems begin and end in media res—in the middle of things, in the middle of life, in the middle of the proverbial woods. Instead of slowly seducing the reader, Prikryl’s speaker leaps straight into a surprising intimacy, nearly whispering the poems into the reader’s ear. In this current moment, after two years of enforced six-foot gaps between strangers, the closing-up of that distance feels startling, illicit, and captivating.
Midwood represents a departure for Prikryl; the elegant, often languid syntax the poet manages so deftly in her first two collections (2016’s The After Party and 2019’s No Matter) has been swapped out for fragments and conspicuously sparse punctuation. A reader can glide through an early Prikryl poem, but reading Midwood entails frequent doubling-back. This is a feature, not a bug; the poems in Midwood make masterful use of syntactic hiccups, forcing the reader to move slowly and attentively from line to line. Like picking one’s way through an unfamiliar forest, reading Midwood means asking, “didn’t I pass that tree already?”
Midwood is full of echoes; titles and distinctive phrases are repeated verbatim. In “Another Visit,” the speaker considers “the bus routes / I’d sew together along the rim of the hills,” a passage we encounter again in “Another Time.” The first of these two poems is an impression: a “flock” of Boy Scouts moves down through the hills, and the speaker comments on her failure to fully describe the scene. In the second poem, the same schoolboy “flock” descends, only now we meet a doctor and learn “the heartbeat’s gone // it’s very common, he said / extracted from that too / assurance a baby could one day.” The effect is like that of a recurring dream, where new details emerge in each iteration. Or, perhaps, like multiple attempts to describe a dream to a new confidant; as the relationship between speaker and listener deepens, so to does the degree of detail revealed. Prikryl pulls the same sleight-of-hand with “Ten O’Clock,” and “Next Cycle,” where a gesture of affection in the first poem becomes, in the second, part of a hurried rush through snowbanks to reach a medical clinic. Each repetition is like the “transparencies” Prikryl invokes in “Another Visit,” piling up to create a more complete picture.
Dreams are unsettling for the same reason the woods are unsettling: they tip the balance between the known and the alien. You are in your house, but it’s not your house. Something terrible has happened, but you are strangely unruffled by it. Prikryl’s speaker relays one disconcerting scene after another without ever losing composure; mundane occurrences of human interaction give way to airplanes making emergency landings in rivers, babies lost before and after birth, trains that are missed and trains that pass undamaged through truck convoys. It’s all so…weird. For those of us who spent COVID lockdown at home caring for—and worrying about—children, this sense of life as a waking dream is still very close to the surface. Prikryl unlocks something in Midwood, writing about a crisis through which we are still living, but about which we are not yet able to speak, for fear of jinxing ourselves.
What makes Midwood work exceptionally well is Prikryl’s wry and absurd humour. A “Wood-paneled basement” resembles “the inside of a tree for delinquent dads”; a woman on the run laments the “terrible / choices I’d made with pants”; two separate poems end, “I came into the morning laughing.” Crises, whether personal or global, are serious matters; so serious that if we can’t laugh through them, we don’t stand much of a chance.
—From CNQ 112 (Fall 2022/Winter 2023).
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