If ever a poetry collection were to reclaim solitude from an underappreciating and undeserving society, it would be Joanna Klink’s stunning fourth collection Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy (Penguin, 2015). Through a collection of poems quiet in tone but unflinching in conviction, Klink explores the complex relationship between the body and solitude. The energy and drive behind each poem is clear, the result of copious thought and time spent with the world. Specifically, Klink brings into the light a new vision of the world: one that declines to engage with the last decade or so of media norms, one in which solitude and its perceived isolation are not weaknesses, but rather opportunities for enhanced human connection, self-engagement, and experience.
From the collection’s advent, Klink’s engagement with solitude seems to be born not of simple interest, but of an unrelenting need for justification. In many of the collection’s poems, Klink makes mention of needing answers that seem consistently elusive. Consider her poem “Early Night, Askew,” “when you reached your arms / out into the night [because] you needed like me / an answer and the low-flying geese … were gone,” or her poem “Given,” in which Klink “turn[s] to the sunlight for / answers [but] like you, I am / not sure where it is gone.” As the collection harbors increasing frustration on account of Klink’s continued unmet desire for answers, the reader (and, ultimately, Klink) starts to wonder if there is an answer at all—whether solitude must be justified, or whether it is simply a condition of natural order.
This is the collection’s overarching question, and this is where Klink’s masterful technique shines brightest. While the poems of Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy possess consistent lyric prowess and knack for deliberate, pointed subtlety, Klink’s verse is far from safe and contained. For instance, one of the most intriguing aspects of the collection is Klink’s separation of what is most inherently rational and orderly from what is natural. In fact, through Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, Klink seems to argue the exact opposite, that what is most natural is unconventional.
Consider Klink’s poem “The Graves (So here are the strange feelings),” in which “how you came to be who you are / was all unwinding.” This presents the concept of origin not in neat and refined terms, but rather in untidy ones that seem to be individualistic and deeply personal in nature. In this way, Klink both legitimizes and epitomizes the humanity behind reversion from that which is ceaselessly social. The ultimate notion of owning the unconventional self is a seed that Klink plants as early as the opening poem—in “Elemental,” Klink writes, “This is not a natural world, and if there are / recoveries from confusion, they pass like rains.” As the collection builds, Klink nourishes this idea through juxtaposing unconventionality with restrictive social cues and pressures, such as in “Island States (Night-Shining),” where “no one slept; truly no one greeted you without a smile.” Through these measures, Klink thus shines a new light on the social construction of unconventionality by showing that it is not a product of human behavior, but rather a state of natural origin.
As Klink applies such themes to her portrait of society—the quiet brilliance of her technique at the controls—the thematic strands of solitude and unconventionality begin to intertwine, interact, and complicate. Repeated suggestions about conditions for necessary interaction come from Klink through such poems as “Aubade (Who lives where summer ends),” in which Klink writes, “in the book of this / most-alone-place I am / there only when you feel / need, a coat so thin and so like / skin you can touch the / slopes.” Through this poem and others like it, Klink hints that there may in fact be a bond between those who unconventionally take comfort in time spent disconnected and unplugged. In fact, it seems even Klink herself begins to reconsider her premises; in “Pericardium,” she asks the simple question, “Am I not alone, as I thought I was?” In this way, Klink’s exploration of the relationship between loneness and social convention informs the way we approach the foundation of originality and individuality, while simultaneously instilling a sense of community and communication in perhaps the least likely of places.
Ultimately, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy serves as a monument for unconventional solitude. We witness Klink’s gradual transition from struggle with impersonality to embracing of individualism. There is a comfort to the place Klink arrives, a comfort that uniquely allows for humanity—both Klink’s and ours—to unfold into its most open and liberated form. Through interspersed yet interconnected poems, Klink reclaims both her voice and the right to exhibit loneness within a society that views ever-present social connection as a necessary pillar of experience. After all, as Klink writes in her poem “Novenary,” “I came here to be opened, / the way a telescope, wavering, discovers then dwells.” Following in Klink’s tracks, we can’t help but share a moment of discovery, and part ways understanding that to appreciate the quiet, the hesitant, and the fragile is to appreciate human experience and language at its innermost core.
About the Reviewer
Peter LaBerge's recent work appears in Beloit Poetry Journal,The Iowa Review, Sixth Finch, Hayden's Ferry Review, Best New Poets 2014 , and Indiana Review, among others. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the Bucknell University Stadler Center for Poetry, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal, and the author of the chapbook Hook (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). He lives in Philadelphia, where he is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Find him online at www.peterlaberge.com.