on Annotated Glass by Alyse Knorr

This striking first collection explores love and loss through a series of linked poems that dramatizes the experiences of a young woman named Alice. The name of the heroine of Annotated Glass echoes the author’s name in a generative misspeaking that is one of the book’s dominant modes of pleasure and propulsion. For example, we are introduced to Alice’s brother, Owen, with “When I was young I thought my brother’s name was ‘Own.’ ” Knorr’s work finds its emotional and narrative footing through such linguistic slippage, and this mishearing of a name evokes one of the central concerns of this volume—an interrogation of what a person can own. Annotated Glass is a love story that asks: Who owns romantic love? It’s an elegy that asks: Who owns grief? It’s a portrait of evolving notions of family that asks: Who owns the definition of “family”? 

Knorr’s title and her love of wordplay bring to mind another, more famous Alice. Lewis Carroll’s adventurous heroine provides the springboard for “Alice in Public Restroomland,” “Alice in Georgialand,” “Alice in Fatherland,” and other poems. These titles are not just idle punning; they prepare us to read Knorr’s lyrics as grounded in the physical, specific, public world. After encountering such titles, we are primed to read “Alice in Love” as similarly geographical, a description of not just an emotional state but a physical place: Alice is located in love, and Knorr’s poetic project is to find her within that vast and complicated emotional space.

Knorr announces her central concerns of love, loss, and recovery quite early. Alice falls for her beloved, Jenny, by the second poem of the book, and a few poems later we encounter “Alice Despairs.” What Alice feels for Jenny is deep, passionate, and unafraid of the received language that so often comes with young love—including worries over a metaphoric heart. But this poet’s attention to both physical and sonic details ultimately saves even her poems that most risk becoming clichéd. For example, here is the first of three poems entitled “Alice Recalls Her First Meeting with Jenny”:

I order her fried chicken fingers
and another drink, and there’s
her hand on my knee.

My heart crunches into and back
out of its small foil ball, muttering
the same distinct phrase over and over:
This is happening, happening, happening.

Though as readers of contemporary poetry we may be skeptical of metaphorical hearts in love poems, Knorr’s analogy avoids the pitfall of sentimentality by staying grounded in the scene’s particulars. The foil ball operates in the material world of chicken fingers as well as in Alice’s emotional state: in effect, Knorr has brought Sappho to KFC. And the poetic ear that hears an excited heartbeat in the repeated “happening” is one I trust to guide me through the rest of this book. 

Balancing out such stable, narrative poems, Knorr also includes far more allusive and suggestive lyrics. The color blue is intimately associated with the beloved in the first of these, the list poem “Alice Writes Down Everything She Needs to Remember about Jenny,” which ends:

told me a fact about icebergs I didn’t know

lives in an old Methodist church

grandmother was a florist

doesn’t eat salmon

left side of the bed

blue

As the entries on this list shrink, they grow ever more suggestive; “left side of the bed” gestures tenderly toward a concrete scene it fails to complete, but the poem’s final word offers not even that amount of clarity. Blue eyes? Blue duvet? Feeling blue? We don’t know, but the mysterious association hangs in the back of the reader’s mind until, in “Alice Begins,” we find: 

I could say poplar tree 
I could say blue 
I could say sparrow on a telephone wire
say tender-shingled roof
say citrus smell on my pillow

Here, amid these other abortive gestures toward speech, we can begin to understand what “blue” might mean to Alice, what she can’t quite bring herself to talk about: the tentativeness, the frailty of this romantic union.

The loss of Jenny is obviously central to Annotated Glass, but it is not the only loss here. Interwoven with the love story is a tale of Alice’s childhood and the aftermath of her young sister Rose’s death. Knorr powerfully mixes tragedy with comedy, reminding us they are two masks best worn together. The prose poem “Alice’s Childhood” begins with a blunt observation that seems true to childhood precisely because it doesn’t have that crust of manners we acquire as we grow up: “The first thing Owen and I noticed about Rose being dead was that there weren’t enough people to play our games anymore.” This trio of siblings had populated imaginary worlds using “a hero-villain-damsel system,” but now there was no damsel. The poem ends with the observation that Rose’s death had left them with “no more hostage, no prisoner to save—no more woman screaming Please help, my baby, my baby.” In that final phrase we hear not just a child processing grief, but the echo of a more adult grief. Rose’s role in these childhood games prepares her sister for her death just enough to drive home the impossibility of such preparation.

Though much of the book focuses on Alice’s incorporation of loves and losses into her own identity, Knorr also provides us with a foil against which we can measure Alice’s grief and recovery. Her father shows up sporadically, carrying with him his damage—his particular response to Rose’s death—in poems that match tragedy with a steely-eyed humor that is itself a coping mechanism. Here is one of the prose poems entitled “Alice in Fatherland”:

He is now to Alice more driftwood than man, and frequently she imagines him this way: a scrap of washed-up wood sitting on the sofa at the motorhome, taking breaks from the television to play rummy and comb his splintered hair. In this way the degeneration becomes charming to her—artsy and sepia-hued, no more heartbroken than a traffic circle.

Beyond its tonal balance between tragedy and comedy, Annotated Glass also achieves a delicate stylistic balance, with even Knorr’s most verbally pyrotechnic poems rooted in a stabilizing narrative. The poem with the most associative wordplay also bears a title that rejects lyric concision, instead insisting on laying bare its narrative particulars: “Alice and Jenny Are Escorted off the Southwest Airlines Plane.” Of course, Knorr could have used the first line, “The flight attendant says this is a family airline,” as her title, and the reader would have been similarly located. By naming the airline, though, this title moves toward political protest, adding yet another register to the book. Though the romance between Alice and Jenny is most often treated apolitically, here the difficulties of a specifically homosexual relationship in contemporary America demand our attention. This does more than just locate the scene for us, then; it also primes us to hear political commentary in the progression of mishearing that drives the poem: 

This is a family affairline     this is a family lair 
I’m saying his is a fantasy error     rewind—this the 
famine rare rhyme, the femme-hair kind; firmly blared
sign     forgotten leaking sewer brine. 

The poem ends with an explicit rejection of the flight attendant’s suggestion that a “family airline” has no room for the kind of relationship Jenny and Alice have. Alice worries over the idea that she and Jenny are unacceptable and “un-benign,” even something to be gawked at, but she ultimately rejects that view by insisting that they are, despite the flight attendant’s insinuation, participating in that foundational social unit, the family:

So this is a family affair—line     up to see it this is a family
affair this is a family     this is

Knorr deftly weaves these political threads into the broader fabric of love and loss by refusing to linger too long on any one strand. After moments of deep vulnerability and emotional sincerity, she sidesteps into humor or eros. No one subject matter, no single approach, dominates this book; instead it is a constellation of human emotion—contradictory, obsessive, and therefore honest. The fact that Annotated Glass doesn’t progress chronologically is one of the ways that it pays allegiance to emotional rather than narrative truth: Rose dies and reappears, Owen suffers from that loss as an adult and a child, and Alice and Jenny have a serious relationship before we see their first date. These subjects arise not according to a left-brain logic or pattern, but abruptly, according to the same psychological reality that causes Alice to notice, in “After Jenny Asks Alice about Her Dead Sister,” the “yellow tractors mowing / fields of sunflowers whose faces / have turned black.” 

As a result of such psychological focus, the book’s conclusion offers emotional instead of narrative resolution. Alice slowly comes to accept the losses she has suffered—her beloved, her sister, her once-whole family—and what evolves from that process is rendered in some of Knorr’s most striking metaphors and memorable images. “Alice Does Not Wake Up and Realize This Was All a Dream” marks the beginning of movement through grief toward acceptance:

The next morning, I had even more legs.
No wings no eyes no Jenny or Rose—
I felt visibly invisible, like the moon
during the day. A skate gliding
along sand at the bottom
of the sea, drowned stone coin
gasping for value.

These final metaphors—three in rapid succession—are still a grasping after self-understanding in the context of loss, but a mind that processes absence and identity in such ways is not in extremis. We need not leave this book anxious for Alice; instead we can be hopeful for her, expecting a brighter future on the far side of the experiences we’ve just survived together.

With its rare combination of emotional intimacy and linguistic play, Annotated Glass creates a world in which narrative and experimental poetry can be beautifully joined. Alice is a creature of both worlds, and there is something simultaneously comfortable and impressive about a heroine who can inhabit them both so well. By the end of this book I found myself feeling like Alice in “Jenny’s House Electrocutes Alice,” surprised but happy “on my back / current on my tongue like the inside / of a star.” 

 

_____
Baltimore, MD: Furniture Press Books, 2013. 80 pp. $12.99. 

 

Dan Rosenberg is the author of cadabra (Carnegie Mellon University Press, forthcoming 2015) and The Crushing Organ (Dream Horse Press, 2012). His poems have appeared recently in jubilat, Salt Hill, Conjunctions, and Blackbird. A PhD candidate at the University of Georgia, he co-edits Transom.