Brenda Niskala’s How to Be a River offers to readers a set of poems as diverse as they are nuanced, as piercing as they are enigmatic. Niskala’s writing is crisp and tight, unburdened by sentimentality, and the poems glimmer with an immediate and luminous arousal of recognition, of the sense of truly “being here.” The poems capture surprising crossways of feeling and consciousness, with subjects that range from the tragic, such as in “Blunt Instrument”, a poem about a young man lost to his loved ones and subject to the criminal justice system, to the provocative “Room Full of Men”, a poem whose character, Anita, will arouse much discussion for her free, unquenchable spirit and her ardent devotion to men. Niskala is a poet with exquisite taste in subject matter and a native ability to capture forms and expressions of human connectedness.
The poems in this collection are not only luminous, but they transport the reader with their tracings of the numinous. Niskala writes with an attentive human interest, and her work is rooted in seldom explored realms and rhythms of the human heart. In the poem, “Over the North Atlantic”, she explores the dynamic positions of long-distance lovers. Niskala demonstrates the capacity of poetry to mimic narration, in a style as evocative as it is economical and elegant. She uses juxtaposition aptly, treading nimbly the path on which her lovers’ ascend, never trilling, but revealing their state of connectedness with pointillist precision: “Yesterday, drought weakened,/he forgot rainfall. Her touch/soothing the muscles of that cup at his skull bone.” It is not that this poem states this is the way love should be, but it depicts the way love is, and one feels deepened and satisfied in the instances of touch the lovers share, at human feeling true and creative to form, instances Niskala deftly, confidently describes.
Several poems in the collection illuminate the experiences of the body and mind that it is difficult for any science to describe and classify. Niskala makes our inconvenient anthropic enigmas palpably visible. The poems “Instinct”, “Absence”, and “The undead” depict experience’s inconvenient little black truths. “Instinct” and “The undead” both explore the sense of necessity inherent in psychological realism, its knowledge for survival, while “Absence” accepts the physical necessity of a paradoxical universe. These little pieces of the real, of the oblique and opaque facets of experience, stand in contrast to the poem, “Belly dancing with my daughter,” in which the language of everyday perception is foreshortened, clipped, and deferential. The daughter, once a reflection of the speaker, now stands apart, seen in breakings of space and line. In seeing, the speaker can no longer deny her overwhelming apprehension: “I carry heavy, hapless but I am/where the buck/stops. No one looks after./ Did you? She./ Alone capable she did.”
The poems in this collection dive into pools of diverse experience and surface with a clear, defamiliarized intelligence. This collection should be read by lovers of poetry and those who seek revelation in the indelible and innumerable currents of human connectedness and consciousness.
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