Book Review

Much of the grace and ambiguity of Claudia Keelan’s We Step into the Sea: New and Selected Poems is captured in the imagery of that title. It calls to mind famous figures of women walking into the ocean, like Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni or Kate Chopin’s central character Edna in The Awakening, the latter of whom is alluded to in Keelan’s poem “First Acts.” While such waters may seem, at first blush, to only be imbued with tragedy and sweetbitter suffering, Keelan finds a way to open them outward. Just as the book is dedicated “To the possible world,” Keelan keeps finding ways to open possibilities for us, “ . . . sacred / (Scared).” As she troubles the pronouns I and You and Us and Them, she asks whether and where we belong in the We of the title. Pushing the boundaries of language, in Keelan’s work, is an ethical act of constantly trying to find our life in each word and sound.

And what an offering of language she gives us. We Step into the Sea: New and Selected Poems offers works rich with formal variety and lyric intimacy, along with a glimpse into Keelan’s mind over the course of almost twenty-five years. Among the pieces are a crown of sonnets, scenes and a cast list featuring characters like the heart and the lyric, and meditations on the nature of poetry itself. Throughout it all, Keelan uses Steinian repetitions to keep opening language, to keep “finding, at the level of the syllable, what life has been left out or erased in dominant culture’s acceptance of conventional language modes” (emphasis original) as she states in “Debts: Before the Afterword.” We see such life in her sharp observations and images, as in her poem “The Secularist,” which reads:

. . . What do you do

with light you can’t be quit
      of, throwing its gleam
on you from a holy grave
      you thought you dreamed

In spite of the suffering Keelan’s works frequently offer us, with images of saintly purification or gunshots, there is a light that we still cannot be quit of, something holy to the secular light of the flesh with “the cries protracted in the spine” that we see in poems like “Bluff City.” God, self, you, I, and we are both separate entities and blurred together, even as Keelan keeps questioning these pronouns and lyric poetry itself. If she pressures syntax into caesura and erasure and disjointedness, it is to realign words to allow truths that otherwise find no room in the traditional language of discourse. As she knows from speaking in conversation with Stein, to pronounce again and again, to repeat, is to reify, to take another attempt at explaining, to make something new and able to be felt again.

One of the great pleasures of reading across Keelan’s body of work is seeing how these concerns and images evolve over time. Even as her formal concerns change, Keelan continues to return to the literal heart, defamiliarizing it each time to give our own a jolt. In “Lines Where the Fence Is Crossed,” she commands an unseen other to “Bury my heart in me, / all’s I ask,” and in “Gravity & Grace,” a text from words from Simone Weil’s book of the same name, she uses space and gaps in syntax to render the heart both corporeal and vanishing beneath our feet:

À fin                    all was strange                     of my heart
            a landscape                         of I am not
Disappearing, things                  became perfect

Once                  to hear, see, touch                 eat
            deprived God                    something saying
A landscape       disappearing                        in I am not

In her notes on this poem, Keelan calls this a song, and she so similarly and beautifully crafts a song out of the broken notes of the world, with its fences and wires, throughout the rest of her poems. To access God requires both a living within the body and a rejection of that body, the removal of it to be something other than self, and language as an act of removing. The landscape of the lyric, the landscape of the heart, is not saccharine but rather the truest register of being—precisely because Keelan keeps applying formal pressure to these things. Using the line “What Is God in Us” as both the title of the first poem in her opening crown of sonnets and the last line of the crown, Keelan keeps repositioning and recontextualizing the divine again and again. The last poem of the crown, “Her Name Was Rape,” ends by juxtaposing the mortal and the immortal in the site of the body: “Her wish:       Muffled in a calf’s dying bleat / My wish:       To love / What is God in Us.” By using the crown of sonnets to question what Us can mean and hold, she also asks what notions of God and the lyric poem can hold, where bodies’ and language’s boundaries begin and end.

Such deft thinking and imagistic beauty are some of the great satisfactions of reading this collection. As readers, we are held in the multitudes of Keelan’s title and by the sharpness of her intelligence. In poems like “Are You Anyone,” she makes us reconsider the way we assume beingness, writing, “Is anything really itself is it.” We must always ask this, whether something truly is, even as images of ventricle and water and oxygen and grave flash before us. Keelan teaches that, in language and its reality, we must continually return to the question of isness, of perception of a thing, to exist in poems and the world. As she writes in “Debts: Before the Afterword,” “Just as saintliness is unnatural in the willing mortification of the flesh . . . there is in the violation of language’s conventions, a wholly unnatural inclusiveness to be forged.” Keelan’s poems work to achieve this inclusiveness in their formal shifts and return to particular images over and over again across the years this book represents. Leaping with her poems gives us a way to participate in such work. Stepping into the sea together, though initially unnatural, is how we and the collection engage in this ethos. And in the hands of a poet like Keelan, how wide the water truly is. What a marvel to let this ocean close over us.

About the Reviewer

Kelly Weber is the author of the chapbook All My Valentine’s Days Are Weird from Pseudo Poseur Press, and her poems and essays have appeared in Upstreet, the Midwest Quarterly, Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the AWP Intro Journal Award, and she has served as an artist-in-residence at Cedar Point Biological Station. She is currently an MFA candidate at Colorado State University.