Reviewed by Lytton Smith
In “Foreplay,” the opening poem of In No One’s Land, Paige Ackerson-Kiely wryly notes, “There are times when an absence of pride means the lion is eating his cub.” Unflinching and steel-eyed, this hallmark Ackerson-Kiely moment abruptly enters the reader into a hard-surfaced land of diners and liquor stores where, in landscapes of the arctic north and the edge of wilderness, the urban has neither taken over nor entirely stopped trying.
Here and elsewhere Ackerson-Kiely’s muted jokiness acts as a barbed challenge. To look away would be perilous: “any minute now someone will push his way through the door and announce something.” Potential events are as tangible as their actual counterparts, and more threatening. Though we never hear the announcement, whether “dinner is served” or “you will have to come with us,” we sense that what is being announced has nevertheless happened, “The fields to the left and right / full of glassy blackbirds / resting.”
In No One’s Land deftly gives a physical presence to the peripheral and the transitional--the terror of loss in headlights flashing by, the reassurance and gratitude a waitress finds in folding napkins. Ackerson-Kiely’s particular gift with the simile, for instance, is to allow the compared object equal status as the original, such that the comparison has an unusual credibility. Objects likened fuse into one another. In the poem “Instructional Lecture for a Liquor Store Clerk,” the trainee has to decide whether customers without money will come back later to pay for their liquor or “never return, like the buck in November cruising the knotweed.” All at once we are among the deer, told how an orange cap “to the buck . . . has a grayscale wash that is easy to ignore,” and the store has momentarily fallen away.
The collection’s shifting--between the visual and the felt, from lineated to unlineated poems and back, within the grammar of a single sentence--is haunting and sustaining. Addressed often to “you,” they instill in the reader a sense of responsibility both for the land and the speaker. At times it becomes clear that the rules of this place and these poems are still in formation, the reader left to navigate the topology of poems such as “Deer Population at Night”: “Broken, bro. ken, when // divided brother, to know.” What is fascinating is that the speaker, admitting “a bird could / land on my voice’s wire line,” is equally guideless, at the mercy of what happens to her in her struggle to express experience in language. In “Brother” she compares a halted procession of cattle to
like when you discover your blouse
has become unbuttoned
& must turn away
& in doing so forget
the placement of words
or the forgiveness of strangers.
What started out as a comparison becomes an event. The scene observed gives way to what was all the time just below the surface, and the poem becomes about “someone in distress,” a memory relived. The ground has shifted beneath us, and yet our new footing is more satisfying precisely because it is less certain.
Certainty is an undesirable, even dangerous, position in these poems. Ackerson-Kiely’s cautious way with language is evident in the idea of “the forgiveness of strangers”: the forgiveness belongs to the strangers as much as it is asked of them. Certainty involves a loss of power, as when “I know clearly that I will / remove my pants / when it is requested / I remove my pants.” The last line seems, visually and grammatically, a description rather than a conditional. If it has a certain pathos because it happens “though no one calls / to me specifically,” it still does not invite pity; it is, instead, resigned.
Sex, whether alone or with others, runs through In No One’s Land like a live wire, its effects never earthed. The knowledge that “I will / remove my pants / when it is requested” comes amid the pastoral opportunities of “Shepherding.” In “Onenightstand”, perhaps the most tender poem in the collection and fittingly found at is epicenter, the speaker connects sex to “the way an explorer pours himself into the map of his conquest until he becomes north.” Faced with the familiar idea of sex as conquest, she questions who--or what--is claimed, and in what ways. At the moment where sex might reach orgasm, the speaker instead asks her partner how he once fed deer, “how they approached your hand, which you pretended held food, but was merely a closed fist.” The speaker admits to being “frightened of the intimate thing” even while fascinated by it, by “the stranger’s hand with blue veins spread out like meth in a small town.”
These poems are rooted in the earth and in the animal world, impressively aware of the soil and convenience stores and atmospheric pressure of existence. To read In No One’s Land is to look into a beautiful and disconcerting reflective surface and to find that the image there is too alien to be ourselves, and too familiar not to be. The effect is as mesmerizing as it is disconcerting. We hear and see these poems, they touch us and inhabit us, before they begin to work on the intellect. In No One’s Land is a highly sensual collection and also the keenly observed reflections of a quasi-hermetic figure who knows “I will build the home I will die in / the home I will build.” It is one of the best debut collections of this decade, and it has the temerity and quietness to end, in the afterhours of a diner, with a gratitude that resists our notions of what gratitude is: “The desserts offered are too beautiful. No, nothing else // thank-you.”