Kasey Jueds’s second collection, The Thicket, has intersecting emotional and imagistic arcs that reward the careful reader with complex realizations that refuse closure. Two questions are skeleton keys that allow the speaker—and the reader—to unlock metaphorical gates of self-awareness: “where am I?” and “where does one thing become another?” Jueds said these questions are the most important to her, in a dialogue after a recent reading. In The Thicket, these questions reveal liminal spaces between people, places, and sexuality. In many of her poems, these spaces are represented by the color blue: a blue (as in water or sky) that either reveals or obscures something the speaker must reclaim.
The Thicket begins with “The Silo,” in which the speaker asks: “Who keeps your secrets / now?—now that the grain you kept / to feed the winter herd / is gone.” The silo is “where animal skeletons / gleamed in the circle of grass. . . wild things / trapped, unable to scale / your steep sides to the mute / O far above.” She describes her “little engine / of the mind stuttering, little / needle skipping against the record’s black disc / where it hits the scratched / place, the damage—,” and so the circularity of the silo and the record reveal a self that is trapped and damaged.
Then, in “Of Pink,” the color pink is recast as a signifier of feminine power; it is not inside a “book of flowers,” but rather, the “pink of touch-me-there,” and “secret / pink behind the knee.” The speaker confesses she “came late / to pink, though pink was always here.” Now, “pink” means “pink of oh. Pink of see-me. Of labia and lip. . . . Pink of wound between / the sutures. Pink / of live. See?”
In “Briar Rose,” she clearly states her dilemma: “How easy, then, to be / mistaken. To be so lost / and somehow found.” Referencing the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” she concludes, “In the story when // she wakes, the story is over, and so everything // can begin.”
In “The Kingdom,” a subtle change occurs in the speaker and liminal space is experienced as “visible / as a wound.” Now she sees where she is:
toward which your eye
where to be
to be kissed
in secret and never
though you may
name its threads
Here, for the first time, the “thicket” is an erotic place, a safe place to be “kissed // in secret.” This double sense of the thicket as both protective and erotic echoes parts of “Of Pink” and begins the healing of the speaker’s “wound,” as she names it—and reconfigures it as an “entrance.”
The images of an “island” and the color “blue” are linked and developed throughout the book. They are first linked in the poem “Unknown Natural Forces”: “If we could sink far enough / below the lake’s quivering // skin, would we find pieces / of the island that vanished?” This linkage prompts the speaker to conclude that “it would be years before I’d learn / the words for what erased // the island, before I’d hear, // inside my own head, that cry— // come back—and wonder // who I was calling.”
The question “where does one thing end and another begin?” is embodied by these linked images, but an explicit answer to that question is cast into the future by the speaker. In “Not All the Animals Sleep”:
. . . an island
vanished, slipped back into the lake
that birthed it. And long before that,
a glacier birthed the lake: receding,
it left behind a hollow into which water
found its way. . . That island: how sudden
or not the blue took it back. That lake
the coldest and most remote.
In this poem, the question “where am I?” invokes place and time as markers in the process through which we discover ourselves. The speaker knows this to be the case, though it involves a painful sense of waiting, a feeling that something is withheld. The poem concludes, “. . . I can imagine/ flowers might return, repeating / yellow, yellow. But how not to count / the days or hours till then: if / you will draw near, if you / will teach me—please, teach me this.”
“The Far Field,” which begins, “I could teach you,” establishes that the speaker has learned the difficult lesson of waiting and listening. This becomes apparent in the second part of the book. Now, she can see where the river “comes close / to vanishing under pines whose shade // is disordered and always, pouring / itself over the borders of blackberry.” And now, she can see “the path // where it surrenders its edges / to the tangle of field.” She understands where one thing becomes another, and she now moves beyond merely seeing to becoming.
“Litany (Paulownia)” returns to the image of the island, no longer contained in a lake, but set in motion by a river. The speaker responds to the question “where am I” with a river of words: “Given the river, the island at its center. // Given the island where no one goes. . . // . . . Given breathings, springs nestled—half a river’s width away the island, the tree. // Given no one goes, the smallest word for blooming.” She can move through the world and herself, even if that movement is lonely, even if it is “the smallest word for blooming.”
Her understanding expands in “Litany (Easter)”: “we could see again what we half-thought / we’d lost, returned to us // because we’d asked.” And yet, there is still more to be learned. In “Unbidden,” this moment is overpowered by a thicket of consciousness, a struggle within herself: “that nothing at the edge of woods or fall / is meant to be untangled. It takes years // for the lovers in the story / to become human again.”
The last section of the book begins by acknowledging how far the speaker has come, in “Looking Back (The Far Field).” She is self-aware: “Harrowed, fallow, These too / can be used / to describe a field. To describe a distance / or a becoming.” In fact, the question, “Who // am I, when I am not with you.” becomes a statement.
In “Self-Portrait as Lost Earring,” the speaker experiences loss differently: “what I lost was not / a threshold, not a hinge. I retraced / my steps.” This loss is further clarified: “What / I lost was dreamlike, but it was not / a dream;” and even further, “I wanted to see wilderness breathing and real. . . . the animal / I believed in more than God.” Loss leads the speaker to a clear identification with the natural world and specifically, “the animal” that is herself.
“Birthday” uses the Buddhist metaphor of a “gate” leading to enlightenment to describe her newfound wholeness. It’s not completion or resolution, but a wholeness of the simultaneity of all things. “If a gate is open, leave it // open. If closed, leave it closed. If the one / before you hangs unlatched, brightening a space // for your body, in its vanishing, to pass through.” The man-made field is transformed later in the poem into a protective thicket, a “tangle / of stems. . . where the small // animals seek safety. Like you vanishing, // brightening, passing through // the gate.”
She is strong in the poem “Inverting the Winter,” unafraid of a loss of self: “It was a subterranean, // unconscious land that I longed for.” This leads to a powerful ecstatic moment, when language becomes physical and so makes visible the unconscious wild: “. . . the paper’s parched skin // opens to drink in pigment, ink. Over // and over the tree’s stripped limbs. . . Now // for the sky behind them. Now for the blue.” Blue is freedom, even if it is fleeting.
Blue triumphs in the penultimate poem, “Body Of Water.” Fear is gone, and she can “tentatively” touch the mysteries inside her:
What did it matter
the doors were closed? You had hands,
and blood to move them, blood you still pictured
as red like the fish, though coiled
in the body—you must know this
by now—it is, as any water
may show itself, blue.
The book could end here. But it doesn’t end here because life is messy; not even art can save it. There are moments that engulf us, insisting upon and resisting closure, and this too must be acknowledged and spoken, as it is in the last poem, “Nightjar.”
A nightjar is a bird that appears at twilight. It is also a bird that hunts in thickets. In a world of solitary waiting and pill-pushing psychiatrists, the speaker recounts a dream of a baby crying in a hospital as she:
stood / in that hallway. How you couldn’t not
keep on living then, though the sobbing was bodiless
and there were so many doors, and only one
was the one you were meant to go through.
Here the speaker’s journey ends and begins anew, in the liminal thicket at the threshold of night and day, of blue.
About the Reviewer
Randall Potts is the author of Trickster (University of Iowa Press, 2014) and Collision Center (O Books,1994), as well as a chapbook, Recant: (A Revision) (Leave Books, 1994). They attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop and taught creative writing at the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts. They are non-binary and live in Bellingham Washington.