Whatever It Is, Incandescent: A Review of Amy Pence’s [It] Incandescent
by Katharine Coldiron
My second closest poetfriend tweets a picture of marginalia on an Emily Dickinson poem. I tweet in reply—
Thesis: Dickinson wrote the most intellectually sophisticated poetry of her century.
He tweets back—
I don’t know remotely enough about that century to say otherwise, so I agree!
I tweet back—
I don’t know enough about Dickinson! I just feel like all the poets of her time were like “plants are nice” and she was like “death stalks us and humans are impossible to love”
He tweets back—
I mean, accurate! And also I love anyone who uses way more em dashes than necessary
Same, poetfriend. Same.
This twenty-first century conversation takes place a few days after I finish my first read of [It] Incandescent, an ungraspable hybrid of text, shape, and color. Of poetry, history, family, love, violence. Of sewing and blood. I find myself not folding down any pages of the book, which is something I always do when I’m reading a book for review. I have learned (the hard way) that I will never find that quote I loved unless I fold the page down, and here I sit, toying with that ironclad conclusion, while nose-deep in a collection as intricate and brilliant as jeweled embroidery. But the book builds on itself in such small units (words, punctuation, rectangular borders as thin as two pixels) that I cannot easily see pieces of it to slice out and set down, exhibit slides that demonstrate Amy Pence’s skill and grace.
You: a dim house locked shut—
+ latching all your entries +
Plus, I feel that thing I so often feel in poetry: the movement of shadowy creatures I cannot identify under the scrim of words. I understand that poetry is the process of compaction, and that a poet arranges words for sound and sense until she has a heartbeat, an inhale. Beyond that I do not know, technically or professionally, how poetry does itself. Beasts shift in the gloom between the lines. Reading Pence, I can see that [It] is a thing in the speaker’s daughter’s life, that [It] may have happened to Dickinson too. I posit that [It] is a compacted word with nces removed from its middle.
Can I prove this? No.
Can the speaker prove that [It] happened to her daughter, or to Dickinson? No.
all the loaded nightdresses
hang ghastly on the line
The line: a clothesline, a line of poetry, a line of two hyphens combined to form an em dash. – – . O, the start of an ode, the center of a distress call. nces.
I read and I feel inadequate. I don’t know enough about Dickinson. The trace of biography, the impressions of family and friends, the auburn curl of preserved hair: is any of this true? Is all of it true? Is Pence cherry-picking for her own purposes, inventing visits and relics that never existed, or has she lassoed the immortal heart of this poet? I don’t know. I don’t even know enough to know whether I would know, had I previously read a biography or three.
Her house in Amherst, where some (most? all?) of the action of [It] Incandescent takes place, lies a half-hour’s drive from Mount Holyoke College, where I earned my bachelor’s degree. Pence and the speaker—I do not know if they’re the same consciousness—have visited that house, and I have, too. It’s an ordinary house, easy to find, fielding scores of visitors attempting to seize her mystery. She attended Mount Holyoke, too, when it was still a teachers’ college. I wonder about that, about every part of it: what she did, what she learned, whom she met, why she left, why she went in the first place.
Her dress was so wee.
Her dress—plain, buttoned at the front—large with pockets—a pause of space—
I wonder this: does not every reader, every poet, have a different idea of Dickinson? She leaves us so many of her words—such thundersome incantations, such a soaring talent—but so little of herself. A single dress. She nestles in a cocoon of reclusion, her aging unrecorded in a daguerreotype century, her thoughts never posted to poetfriends on Twitter. Spinoffs of her exist in too many media, authored by too many inspired minds, even to list. Has anyone caught her? Or do they make art for their glory, selfishly reflecting hers, like a mirror held to the moon?
Pence’s endeavor is not that, not a lunar shadow. It is too fine, too much her own warp and weft to be anything reflected. The lines she borrows from Dickinson appear in italics, but they blend effortlessly into Pence’s own words. She performs not an imitation of Dickinson, but an inhabitation of her. The book reads as an attempt not to weld her words or her experiences to Dickinson’s, but to sister her: to mend her loneliness without trespassing on her solitude, without filching her greatness.
I follow the dashes—all she had—a filament, a law—like that path through woods: a suture, a gap (for the secrets), slicked open with the thinnest blade.
I reread [It] Incandescent and I don’t understand why the boxes, why the varying color and shape for the boxes, why the font is so bloody small. The boxes vary, either colored lavender and placed heterogeneously on the page, or centered, bordered in gray, colorless. Some pages nestle multiple lines of text inside a single pair of large gray brackets; some lines use brackets in-text. I don’t know what any of this visual play signifies. Most of my unknowing I chalk up to not knowing how poetry does itself—not understanding it from the inside out. It’s all quite deliberate, and I presume it’s the right set of decisions because the poetry halts my breathing so effectively, but I don’t really get it. I love the choice of actual color (purple boxes, red titles) on so many pages; too few presses allow extravagant printing costs in order to let their poets realize ideas. I love the punctuation as an additional poetic tool (not just em dashes, but +, [ ], an = every now and then).
I am torn on the titles. I feel like the book would more beautifully resemble an extended spell if the titles were left out. I come up for air at every page bearing a title, which is a repeated relief but also a repeated nag. Suffocation might have been better. I think of Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House, a spell I loved, and a 45-page poem in Carolyn Forché’s Blue Hour, a spell that exhausted me. This book resembles neither. It’s fragmented in tiny portions, darting between internal weather and external details, between Dickinson’s letters and the speaker’s conversations with her daughter. In its tatters and distraction, it reads less like poetry and more like the fragmented memoirs I love, California Calling and The Chronology of Water, fragments shored against ruins. Forgive me, I’m mixing my eras.
But compacted. The compaction is what convinces me that, despite frequent prose and innovative formatting, [It] Incandescent is definitely poetry. Pence’s language has been sewn with stitches so fine they’re impossible to see. Reduced and cubed until it bottles lightning. Molded until it’s denser than blood.
with a complexity—our
desires, the things It loathes—
the intimacies [It] will not share.
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, VIDA, the Rumpus, LARB, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.