by Alyse Knorr
Seven Kitchens Press, 2019
“A teacher once told me poetry is wanting/ always to close itself, so you must constantly/ begin anew, over and over again—you must/ create whole new worlds every time you write,” states Alyse Knorr’s speaker in her chapbook Ballast, published in 2019 by Seven Kitchens Press. If poetry is inclined to seal itself like a closet, if it embraces ellipsis, elision, mystery, even subterfuge, the poet seems in Knorr’s formulation to be its counterforce, creating new worlds and opportunities for insight and discovery. Ballast, with grace and intelligence, inquires into scenes of love and intimacy, the precarity of the body and environment, and the tensile relationship between constraint and creativity.
A scholar of Elizabeth Bishop, Knorr pays homage to the poet, sharing an affinity in ethos and recognizing in the ordinary experience—whether it be, in Knorr’s case, hiking through the wilderness, excavating memory, or loving a woman— the possibility for affective, sensual, and intellectual discovery. Often it is the breakthrough in consciousness, the somatic impact of experience-based knowledge, or the moment of apperception that stirs the imagination and becomes the wellspring of creativity. Knorr recreates and celebrates such moments, even while understanding that “the problem of language looms/ forever. And there are plenty of moons.” Language can be a window, but it is not a transparent one, and Knorr is conscious of the risks of representation, the stultifying impact of the cliché or the hazards of “romanticiz[ing] the landscape” in an age of human-induced environmental crisis. And yet, with her gifts for keen-sighted observation and lyrical precision, she witnesses conditions for healing in and through the land and the other.
Moreover, as a queer poet, Knorr embraces equivocation and departs from a notion of identity as static or categorical. One of the book’s most interesting conceits is the fraught territory of the closet, which in her hands is a space of invisibility and vulnerability, but also a site of creation and sensuality. So many of us, in our younger years as queer writers, are reading and writing ravenously from the concentrated space of the closet, searching for traces of ourselves in others, and—in the process—actualizing ourselves. The closet is not a vacuum, Knorr reminds us; for queer writers, the closet is the centrifugal space where we dream and remember, where we learn to respect alterity within ourselves and others, and begin to come into our own power.
“I begin and begin” explores this psychically rich terrain in a fourteen sectioned (not lineated) sonnet that both calls upon and reimagines the traditional sonnet structure. Formally and thematically, the poem explores the tension between all manner of open and “closed” forms, including but not limited to the prose poem and lineated poem, as well as the open call of a lake on a hot summer day and the circumscribed parameters of the closet. It begins with the speaker’s mother inquiring how the speaker knows she is queer. It is the sort of question that invokes the suspicion of a heterosexist order that demands of queer people the legibility of their identities. To write is to be implicated in the oppressor’s language, a language by which queer people have been rendered invisible or disenfranchised throughout time, and yet Knorr exalts in an idiom of equivocation and play, resisting the demand for closeting or closure. The poem embraces a multiplicity of meanings, as the space between each numbered section of the sonnet does not gravitate towards a linear or univocal meaning, but towards dispersion, towards the discontinuities of selfhood. As the poem reaches its anticipated fourteenth section, Knorr is at her finest: “One day it was so hot at camp that we ran into the murky red river with all our clothes on—just left the kids in their military file lines near the changing tent and plunged into the scalded lake all in one jump, and she laughed and laughed and we felt so relieved and we were sticky drying all day long.” Rejecting the “military file lines” of a traditionally lineated sonnet, Knorr revels in the freedom achieved through constraints, in which the terms of relation and being are in continual emergence rather than merely determined in advance.
Ballast is the poet’s third chapbook. She has also written three poetry collections and a non-fiction book. A prolific, astonishingly talented poet, Knorr, much like Bishop, is the sort of poet to which one can return again and again with joy. With humor and resilience, as well as an appreciation for the precarity of the body and the dangers of our current age, she is a poet who understands love as the taproot of self-discovery and survival. Filled with love poems not just for the beloved but for the land and the wild, Ballast is a dazzling collection.