My Second Work
by Bridget Lowe
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020
To read a Bridget Lowe poem is to observe a gradual transformation, a transmutation of the ordinary into progressively more extraordinary metaphysical states. Anyone who read Lowe’s first book At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky will be excited to see, in her new collection My Second Work, a return of the same immense imagination, which she utilizes with surgical precision to prod at what makes us human. However, in My Second Work, we see Lowe’s talent for specifically rendered descriptions achieved through abstraction aimed even further inward; she begins asking questions about where we have been—and where is there to go from here?
The collection’s individual poems are mysterious and ritualistic, hinting at a vast network of operations hidden behind the surface of the simple event of a poem: “How/ did I do it?” Lowe writes in the poem “Revival”. “The process was messy,// I’d rather not share it….” We’re given action and consequence, but never the in-between, the how-I-ended-up-here. Exactly how “press[ing] the palm/ lightly against the forehead” is a “promise that all the future wounds/ will have some modicum/ of purpose” in the poem “Wretches” remains electrically elusive. Lowe achieves this effect by selectively permitting her gaze across disparate images and details, strategically leaving contextual gaps that energize her work and our exploration of it. It’s sleight-of-hand, lending a sense of the magical to Lowe’s language, but like all magic acts, it in fact consists of sharpened, rehearsed skills.
One of the best manifestations of these skills occurs when the disjointed, disparate images and details of a poem effectively equate or compare multiple ideas and objects at once, creating a mystical arithmetic that brings about a sense of discovery and transformation; Lowe utilizes cascading metaphors and similes that distort one another’s meanings, complicating the reader’s conventional understanding, and assumptions, of a given topic. A thrilling example is the poem “These Are But the Outskirts of His Ways”. The dynamics that arise from its juxtapositions propel the poem forward: a “steel trap jaw” gives rise to “flowers// wholly disinteresting” to the speaker’s “song a jingle//…begging/ God down”. The progression of images, taken together, begin to comprise a sort of allegory detailing the relationship between the speaker and the titular “he”. The speaker is indirectly compared to a “wholly disinteresting” “flower in the slap of the sun,” begging God with a song from an “instrument of longing.” The “he” that said, “I could kill you,” is, by his capacity for cruelty and violence, indirectly compared to “the sun” who wore “black sunglasses so [the speaker] couldn’t see his soul,” then later to a “spiky ball on a chain going slow like a lasso/ around God’s head”. Here, images morph into one another forming indirectly—though perhaps as truthfully as possible—a complex vision conveying the implications of longing, violence, and dependency this relationship entails. What’s more important and exciting, here, however, is the emergence of a compellingly poignant revelatory glimpse into the speaker’s cognitions—the speaker making sense of the painful allegorical landscape in which she finds herself. This sort of allegorical storytelling returns consistently in My Second Work, and is often, as seen here, heartbreaking and fitting.
My Second Work delves even more daringly into aspects of the personal than Lowe’s previous work, offering the reader reflections on its speakers’ past, present, and potential future. Because the reflections often involve addressing unpleasant or painful truths, as seen in “These Are But the Outskirts of His Ways,” Lowe adopts shifting, cunning voices, abstractions, allegorical angles, and points of view—at one point of God; at another of maggots in an outhouse—which at times seem to be the only recourse to communicate and explore what may be too painful, or perhaps impossible, to address with a conventional understanding of directness. For example, the poem “Willow Tree,” addressing a personified tree, asks the questions: “What are you to me now,/ your back turned?”, “What were you to me then/ but a crude place to hide// that barely hid me?”, and “What does it matter now…?” These questions gather emotive momentum, eventually leading to the direct, compelling confessional revelation, “I’m not the child// who knew you would not remember// me, you// whose only job it was// to witness and cry.”
With persistence and a keen understanding of poetic craft, Lowe uses the realm of abstraction as a tool to peel back our conventional understanding of reflection and disclosure, achieving in the process bold new glimpses into the personal. What results is My Second Work: an exciting new sophomore collection from a poet whose work is, to quote the poet and critic James Longenbach, “brilliant, scary, and heartbreakingly alive.”