BETWEEN THE SELF Alexis Sears presents on the “My Journey” page of her website and the self we meet in her debut poetry collection, there’s an apparent disconnect. On that web page, we find undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins with distinguished mentors in poetry, an MFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, teaching experience, world travel, and a book prize. In the book, we find the trauma of a father’s suicide, depression, obsessions concerning love and sex and beauty and race — a panoply of confusions and wounds. I would fear making the rookie mistake of identifying the narrator with the poet, were it not for the directness of the “About My Writing” page on the same site, where Sears says plainly: “[M]and poems tell the story of my life as a biracial 20-something seeking joy and healing in the wake of a traumatic event.”
And now that I’ve assured you that I haven’t made a rookie mistake, please forget that one-sentence synopsis. You’ll get much greater pleasure out of watching Sears’s themes unspool themselves slowly over 80 pages of poems. The title out of order is doubly ambiguous — a machine out of whack, a failure to follow the rules of decorum — but it also points to the way events in the book are set out: not chronologically, but in scenes and hints scattered across the book’s four sections.
The very first poem makes it clear we’re reading about a person in the throes of transformation:
I’m learning something every ravishing day
and none of it is easy. I admit
my former self has drifted miles away.
The word “ravishing” suggests that the sky of this villanelle’s third stanza is beautiful. But as the poem goes on, the trajectory of the writer’s learning looks less certain:
though sometimes it returns. It’s so cliche
to have some loud internal screaming fit.
I’m learning something every ravishing day:
my lush best friend could end some day (we say
she’ll end instead of die). Fed up, she’ll split
her former self, drifting, drifting away.
There follows a sonnet sequence (“Objet d’Art”) about general unhappiness, uncertain identity, and the search for love; then a short blank verse piece (“Golden Years”) about childhood depression; and then a song (“Some Days Are Harder”) about the struggle to recover. Then there’s a poem mostly about frustration in looking for love (“The Wedding Gown”), one that begins in tercets of rhymed iambic pentameter but that lets its meter fall more and more to pieces as it goes on, although it keeps its rhymes — and then snaps back to a terse pentameter in the last tercet as the obsessive thought runs its course.
Not until the free verse poem “Luck” do we start to learn what lies behind these struggles — that there has been a death (“I was a kid. I didn’t hear / the gunshot”). The references are so oblique that it’s not entirely clear who has died, or where. The next poem, “What Is History?,” sets us straight —
It wasn’t until after his death that I thought
about my father’s complexion. He was dark
like an avocado pit or kiwi skin or the inside
of a pecan pie. […]
— while introducing the theme of the writer’s mixed race. Then come poems that swing back to sexual attraction, explore bar and beach atmosphere and sad confusion, and ruminate on the middle-school past. The mood swings of the poems are matched by swings from one form to another and from formal to free; a telling bit of the poem “Intimacy” reads
Formal poetry makes me feel safe and sane. Perhaps that’s why I stopped
write it. “Do you think you’re Milton?” a professor asks me endearingly[.]
And yet this poem is followed by a villanelle in tight iambic pentameter—a match to the opening poem—that closes the section and neatly wraps up the themes of the suicide, the traumatic emotional fallout, and the ongoing sad confusions.
The book’s second section is devoted to one long poem, “For My Father: A Sonnet Redouble,” a tour de force that explores the flawed relationship father and daughter had while he lived, a kind of cross between fondness and resentment:
So Dad — a crown, these sonnets, all for you.
For me, some time to tell you what you’ve missed.
I can’t. I don’t do much these days, subsist
on vices: doing things I shouldn’t do,
like eating chips or eyeing photographs
of me, the same ones always, as I try
to spy a crumb of beauty. I apply
my makeup poorly. Still, I have to laugh
and wonder: do we choose our flaws or vice
see? Well, I walk outside and feel
a worldwide ache, but life’s a blooper reel
for me (self-deprecating humor’s twice
as fun). Be proud. Your “praise” was always spotty.
I’m learning everything you never taught me.
Winding through 15 sonnets are musings on intimacy, on girlfriends (always with a hint of jealousy), on social unrest, grad school, and poetry, on the hope for a future that includes children, on the poet’s near-addiction to bags of chips , and on her insecurities about her own looks — all themes that reemerge throughout the book.
In sticking to one trauma and its fallout, the collection is even more tightly cohesive than most contemporary prizewinning books. Even the cover image (a dancer off-balance) and the display typeface (I don’t know its name, but every character looks broken) fit perfectly the thesis of out-of-whackness. The poems are in constant conversation across the book, and each means more in context than by itself — so much so that it’s difficult to pull out a given poem for appreciation on its own.
The likeliest candidate might be “Sandwich Shop Sonnet,” an excellent example of the “sonnet-shaped idea,” to use a phrase popular in online poetry workshops of years past. The poem focuses on a minor incident: a shop vendor asks the too-personal question “Do you have a man?” and the poet considers the possible fictional lovers she might present — a grungy Smashing Pumpkins fan, a brainy architect —
An athlete, maybe? six foot three and ripped,
who tutors prisoners on his free days.
I’ll find a writer type whose brilliant script
lights up my face and cures my deep malaise.
But I say, “No,” my eyes fixed on my feet.
She sighs, “Here. Have this ham and cheese. My treat.”
The book rings changes on all sorts of forms: the received forms I’ve already named, plus terza rima, couplets, quatrains, a ghazal, sestinas, unrhymed dimeter, and an assortment of nonce inventions. It also seems to privilege long, demanding forms suited to discursive thought patterns. The canzone form, for example, is especially apt for emotional struggle; its requirements force the poet to ramble all around an idea, making the form a good match for the ruminations of the depressive. The book also favors very long lines—some so long the poems have to be printed landscape—in which meter gets difficult to track. But as a collection it’s judicious in choosing where to depart from form, which it does often; there’s plenty of free to see.
Then there are poems like “Soup over Salad” that begin in clear pentameter but gradually let the meter fall apart. And there’s the shocking prose poem “Memory: We’re Out of Limes,” source of the book’s title, focused on the most painful event Sears’s speaker addresses directly: “Him forcing himself on me while the men applauded.” Other poems — even the word “ravishing” in the opening poem — hint at the same incident, but this poem is the low point of distress. The close of the book’s third section, it ends, “Everything is out of order. I don’t remember what happened first, how the night ended or how it started.”
By the time I reach “Notes to Self” in the fourth section, I’m growing antsy with the disjointed, unmetered struggle to heal — and then, in a miracle of pacing, the book gives me “Daughters,” a clear pentameter celebration of the Sewanee poets’ conference, and at last a tentative claim to wellness: “Maybe now I’m clean, / absolved, a different woman, finally seen.”
That a Donald Justice Poetry Prize–winning book makes so much skillful use both of form and of the breakdown of form is hardly surprising: the contest is run by West Chester University, sponsor of an annual conference focused on poetry in form. It’s also unsurprising that, with Quincy Lehr as judge, the laurels would go to a manuscript full of zingy colloquialisms, surprising rhymes, and pop culture allusions, as well as the occasional profanity and the honest exploration of pain. The whole list of Donald Justice Prize winners is Exhibit A in the defense of formal verse against the charge of stuffy conservatism — a charge that has never made sense, but that poets keep having to battle, year after year. out of order strikes another blow.
Maryann Corbett is the author of five books of poetry, most recently InCode (Able Muse, 2020). She is a past winner of the Richard Wilbur Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. Her work by her appears in journals on both sides of the Atlantic, on the websites of the Poetry Foundation and American Life in Poetry, and in The Best American Poetry 2018.