Book Review

Claire DeVoogd’s debut collection of poetry is an exercise in weaving and reweaving, seaming and unseaming. Stitched together in tight fragments, her words punch through the past like bird shot through a tapestry. Then, DeVoogd pulls the loosened threads through and braids them into something new. The tapestry is both form and subject, and all of life can be entwined in it, as we see in “Apocalypse (as abyss, a complicated pattern)”:

Allow that this

matter may weave

over and over itself

as a tide, gray-blue, perspicacious

as tides are on the shore

beating, in recession

and advance alike.

The resulting tapestries contain truths that feel eerily like prophesy. These prophesies speak to our contemporary moment—its violence and its persistent feats of human connection. The late-twelfth-century poet with whom DeVoogd converses across the collection, Marie de France, was concerned with the larger-than-life characters and stories of her time, with legends. In setting them down in lays, or ballads, de France interpreted those stories anew. By speaking with and through de France, DeVoogd does the same with her own legends. And she does not shy away from the most challenging narratives of our time: these poems are full of war, death, dehumanization—captured in the rich hues of medieval icons.

Like many, I have been preoccupied with war lately, probing the hawkish legends of this country I call home as I watch ethnic cleansing unfold to genocide in Palestine. On September 11, 2001, I was eleven years old and had already been taught to interpret violence from a conqueror’s perspective. Though I have not held that viewpoint for years, on October 7, I had only begun to tease out the uniform narratives of that time, and the hyper-thin imagery that accompanied them. After 9/11, I remember flags and the red flares of the first bombs dropped on Afghanistan, then the occasional scroll of American soldiers killed in action. These images were presented to me as something simple that I could understand, something I could even turn into currency. But it was a lifeless tapestry, and now I see how easily it can be torn apart.

Claire DeVoogd does just that. In her first poem, which constitutes the first part of the collection, the second stanza begins: “Mirrors rattle in their frames, Stacy / Wanting to know about the Taliban— / This is not the war or is it. . . . / In wartime it’s easy for us down / Here to think of love and Britney Spears / Is there, twirling, with her eyes smudged dark with / Mirrors for us that reflect. Everyone says: / What is she doing? I’d like to kill her, then / Save her, then kill her, then save her, / Then kill her.” A couple lines later, the speaker says, “A frog in the pool is dying”— succumbing to the chemical-rich water in which it swims. The speaker’s world is mundanely callous, and yet often beautiful despite itself.

I continue to find it remarkable that DeVoogd began this book in 2019, before our most recent collective reckonings with war and Britney Spears, never mind the pandemic, which prompted so many to speak to one another through portals in space and time. DeVoogd’s meditations are proof positive that our desire to be closer to one another has never been contained to a physical closeness, that the longing can extend outward in all directions and grasp onto whomever it meets there, wherever “there” is.

The second part of the collection, “Errands,” is noted as “a correspondence with Marie de France.” Here, in the first poem, “Marie Tells a Story,” we see the speaker reach for meaning in the events of her life, which are inflected with dreamy details: “Early this millennium I grow terrified and weep in the gas / tank, to know, in my bowl, the kind of meaning I will be, / the million molecules of breath coming to sex, insect, pu- / trescine, cadaverine.” The poet makes strange her human experience: life in an atmosphere that becomes a gas tank, with a head (or body) that presents as a bowl. At least I think that’s what’s going on here.

Throughout the collection, I struggle with some of the leaps DeVoogd makes. While visually the poems are often narrow, in the net they cast, they are anything but. Sometimes, I think the poems gather too much, or too randomly, but then I enjoy the overall impression of this gathering.

Take, for instance, the progression of “Like News in Wartime,” which offsets some text in italics: “The Park Conservancy stands on the side of the park / it wants to protect the park from the predations of those it / exists to serve // It circumscribes the park, restores the vale and may show itself to be noble / in wartime, under fire, people live in it / the park, it’s a dog in this way.” I can’t quite parse what’s going on with that last line—is it in the way the conservancy circles, protects, and serves, or the way the park itself is lived in? But then the dog as figure comes back later in the poem, in more italicized lines—“what’s so wrong with being / a dog’s breakfast / (asking for somebody else)”—and I love it. While the scattershot approach can feel disorienting, this frequent recurrence of figures and names is reorienting and adds to the impression of these poems as legends, where names and figures so often recur.

Naturally, this is also a book concerned with existence. In her final notes, DeVoogd says, “The book I intended to make was apocalyptic, by which I mean, I meant to make a book about loving what doesn’t exist.” The fourth section of the collection, called “Emergencies,” contains poems bearing one of two titles: “Apocalypse” and “Dream,” each with a subtitle in parentheses. What is the connection between apocalypses and dreams? The apocalypse is a onetime reality; the dream is outside of reality—or is it? In the final section, “Boustrophedon,” which is one long sequence, we get more clues:

In this century

                           Of sprawling

Conditions unscrolling apocalypse

After apocalypse in bounded

Infinitives, pavilions, public

Parks and forums

In this or that


It’s hard to remember what you said.

I might have had a dream

And wrote this.

And in the next stanza, the speaker says, “a dream is the most vivid experience of / your life.” If one’s dreams are as vivid, colorful, and complex as DeVoogd’s poems, then every waking must be an apocalypse. And what better way to understand the disillusionment of our times.

About the Reviewer

Krysia Wazny McClain is a poet, writer, and freelance copyeditor from Somerville, Massachusetts. Her poetry has appeared online in Porridge Magazine and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s Ekphrastic Gallery. Her critical writing can be found at Colorado Review. She spends her free time organizing for prison abolition and dancing around her kitchen.