Review: “Blue Trajectory”


Blue Trajectory, Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
Dancing Girl Press, October 2011, $7

Throughout Blue Trajectory, Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom’s great talent is exhibited in the precision of her lines, her sharp breaks, and the tight structure of each poem. Although there is no title poem per se in this collection, the ocean washes through all sixteen pieces, which are unified but still widely varied — perhaps like the ocean itself. Even the poems set ashore are still heavy with the weight of water, touching on the human struggle to stay afloat through the undulation of selves, seasons, and perspectives.

In “Fragments, Slides,” for example, we ebb away from youth into an adult world that Kihlstrom paints in constrained lines, building up and breaking into a foam of wry humor:

We believe in clocks, like
demons lurking in the trees. There are no trees.

A garden is chalk, is oil, is macramé. A garden
breaks our heart. We had a heart to break. It

broke. And now there are two hearts. Please
refer to the spreadsheet.

Although intimacy seems thematic in Blue Trajectory, Kihlstrom never falls into sentimental language or plush, easy images. Instead, she allows human relationships to remain murky, letting her sharp observations of nature replace narrative sequences or snapshots of real-life interactions. Indeed, Kilhstrom’s ocean is not the Caribbean — not for the lazy poetry tourist — but often requires a certain letting go of any kind of fixed-language itinerary. Take “The Sea Urchin,” for instance, broken into three sections of one- and two-line stanzas. The first stanza hints at a beginning, without giving one up.

To fetch it a theory of origins?
Or just re-cloak the thing in violet shroud?

To snatch away its appetite?
Or lock it in a cupboard and nurse it on honey?

Honey dripping from its chin,
a blooming miracle of lethargy.

Would it swell with pity and swallow they key?

The second stanza turns its back on the first, but coyly, with a kind of defiant wit that refuses explanation and may, in fact, mirror the undertow of the relationship at the heart of this poem.

The weather forecast called for broken clouds.
Someone must have been feeling poetic.

But I spoil everything with my red-headed schadenfreude,
so you say. No creature wished for more a blanket of sea — .

The final stanza begins by startling the reader with a confrontation: “Can I state the thing outright?”— a glimmer perhaps of the poet’s “red-headed schadenfreude.” She dangles “the thing” before us, acknowledging everything else she has so artfully refused to state outright. But of course, “the thing” is fluid, an eddy of intimacy and frustration:

I have failed to crystallize a single thread of life
out of this wanton deluge of desire.

Words spill like so many sea creatures
down from their Jonah pinatas.

Who ever saw so many shades of violet —
wave on wave of Esther Merman clones

who rest their cheeks upon their palms,
incline and fall?

And fall again. You whistle in my dream.
I fail to start.

Sleep fitfully and fast,
though water pours out of my ears

and tiny violet spines impress my pillow.

Kilhlstrom continually toys with her readers like she toys with her language, intertwining images to create quick, bold surprises. In “Photon” her play with language reaches an extreme: “The sea like a dead cat, / the sea full of lions . / sea lions who pluck / the sea strings.” But Kihlstrom is not unbalanced in whimsy. Rather, she hems us in amid humor, danger, and a soft vulnerability, as is evident in the remaining lines:

In the end, everyone goes,
said the man who drowned

the bag of cats.
Who would die on safari.

On one calf,
a branding wave of light,

a trace of ink-blue
stitchwork, still glows

under florescence.

It’s all I know of one way
or the other.

“Proposal,” although still tinged with her signature humor, exhibits a gentler, less extreme side of Kihlstrom’s work:

This is the one.
There can be no mistaking.

You find a katydid
and hold it in your hand,
its long leaf-body quivering,
its stick-legs still.

This is what’s been making
all that noise,
you say. The singing
forest. Forest in a leaf….

Ocean in a chapbook? Perhaps. Perhaps, too, some readers will automatically dismiss that seemingly obligatory poem in every collection where a writer writes about the struggle of writing. But Kihlstrom’s “Muse” is neither heavy-handed nor self-absorbed. Her muse, instead, is a harsh father to her poems, “ground hatchlings, rolled / beyond the pale, / estranged by human kindness.” After her words come back “in pieces / disassembled,” the poet sleeps “inside the truck with them, / between the dingy / blankets, bind them tighter / in the morning, / send them back.” It ends, “if they had legs, / they would never stop walking.” And Kihlstrom’s poems are certainly tenacious. In the end, readers should not be surprised to find them scuttling around long after the collection has been read and the chapbook closed. Like sand at the bottom of a bag from a beach trip two summers ago, they keep resurfacing.