“I came into the world / with a phenomenology / in my hand,” the speaker of “I Came Into the World” announces at the beginning of Cassie Donish’s Beautyberry. And what a sharply observed—sharply thought and felt—phenomenology is on display in this book. Donish’s debut collection of poems explores raptures and ruptures, ecotones that simultaneously mark borders and blur them. In that same opening poem, the speaker is “unable to distinguish / an ending from a beginning / and words were songs . . .” Words are indeed songs in this book, as the speakers of these poems demonstrate careful attention toward the porous borders between people and the world. There’s a tender, intimate, and incredibly generous sense of you—the poems’ thou—in this book that feels expansive and inclusive. The open phenomenology and field of I and you feels at the core of the work this book is doing.
The result is a rapturous lyricism that, while engaging with notions of ontology and having a thought / having a body, feels concrete and accessible instead of opaque. In “Summit,” the speaker wonders:
where is the pink
bed of water
you wake (I wake)
and any other
coincident thing . . .
. . .
I opened my mouth to taste the world
There’s almost a kind of personal genesis at work, as the speaker opens the mouth to taste of everything’s language—the you and the I included in the accounting of that. Everything is held equally by the speaker. “I only felt / you leave as trembling” the speaker says later in this same poem, holding the absence of the you with such close attention to this smallest and most vulnerable of movements. The you, through the ambiguity of the line break, becomes the trembling upon leaving. That vulnerability translates into the work as a whole, with speakers noticing that “under the surface / were more surfaces // empty trough filled with leaves” in the poem/section “The Exhibition” and wondering “what if all the time / I carry honey in my pockets, disguising / a wound?” in “The Session.” It can be tough to make questions work in a poem, but Donish’s questions somehow feel honest, urgent.
I continue to be struck by Donish’s ability to make an abstract thought a concrete object to be interacted with and marveled at. In “New Theory,” the speaker interacts with a theory as a thing unto itself, capable of acting like any other object or environment:
my new theory is to make a boundary
between myself and the theory
then, between me and the boundary
to let a clouded region billow in, but to let
its shape be distinct: his face—
though the fog’s blood-filled
when I return, and I’d best
have a line for it
The concept of a theory becomes a rich, generative shape with its own kind of ontology or weather. Even if there is a kind of danger and lack of clarity in the midst of blood and fog, there’s also a beauty to how it becomes self-sustaining. It feels both like an articulation of how a thought becomes a thought in the mind and how thoughts have their own weight in the world as word. It’s marvelous, particularly with Donish’s ability to juxtapose concrete images of dusk and horse within just a couple lines to somehow ground us. In that way, I’m reminded of Natalie Eilbert’s work with Indictus, which similarly concretizes the abstract and the absent to radical effect.
As body, desire, intimacy, self, and others look at one another and each take on an agency of their own—“the body wants / to open and spill its history”—there’s an incredible urgency to Donish’s lyricism, particularly in the face of dominant structures and narratives. In their powerful section “Human Knowledge,” the speaker opines, “All around us, society is being used / to tell itself a story.” That lack of agency is transformed and granted agency through Donish’s careful gaze and questioning. “Know what it doesn’t say?” the speaker asks. “Doesn’t say how this brick shines / with wind. You’re beautiful,” and “ . . . I’m not debating /. . . the desire to say so / is urgent.” Through their questioning of body and boundary, self and knowledge, Donish reminds us that the desire to speak is urgent, necessary, no matter the narratives we are used to making otherwise. What’s beautiful is the way Donish makes a space for acknowledging the narrative, too, along with their speakers’ human frailties: “Don’t I hide too often / behind statues?” asks the speaker of the titular section, “Beautyberry.” In Beautyberry, the question feels like a tool of revelation and confession, a turning of the mind upon itself that offers, simultaneously, a mirror outward—a point of crisis as well as power.
Donish offers us such rich pleasures through their careful use of line and their formal capacity to inhabit a single page or many pages with a poem. Trembling, snow, berry, intimacy: there is room to breathe here, for the speakers’ thoughtful consideration of each moment and what it means to be a body interacting with other bodies in a world of language. It’s an ethical work that’s deeply needed, right now in particular.
About the Reviewer
Kelly Weber holds an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University. She is the author of the chapbook All My Valentine’s Days Are Weird from Pseudo Poseur Press, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Qu, Mud Season, Entropy, upstreet, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Frontier Chapbook Prize and Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize, and her work has nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Intro Journal Award. She has received professional support from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference workshop and served as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review. She lives in Colorado, where she enjoys exploring the outdoors. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com.