Seattle poet Kary Wayson's second collection, The Slip, comes 11 years after her debut, American Husband, which itself came long after she'd been working the reading circuits as one of the country's most skillful lyric poets.
But it takes a while in the mines to find diamonds in the dirt of everyday experience, and even longer to polish them up with the few tools poetry provides. The time Wayson took to fashion the multifaceted jewels she gives us in The Slip was well worth it.
Both books share some subjects: the paradox of the self (we're singular, yet we contain multitudes), the lover(s), the mother, the father, aborted beginnings of all kinds, and the way we never stop loving people we've loved. She's particularly interested in how impossible it is to reconcile that last subject with the language we have for love. Words themselves, with their many outs, allow us so many ways to evade commitments.
For the sake of conversation, I'll risk what the book doesn't and reduce it to one narrative. The Slip's speaker has reached the end of longing for love in the way you long for it in your wild 20s (and your even wilder 30s). She now reflects on what good any of that longing did her, whether she'll ever long again, whether longing means being alive, and, if so, what that says about what she thinks living means.
"I used to think of people, of lovers / of me as ways / to take. I'd take / a way. Each way seemed to seal off the others. / Then I'd run right out like I did as a kid, from the plane / to look for my mother. Now I feel / no longing for men," she writes in "The Day," one of The Slip's many exemplary poems, and one that highlights Wayson's particular gifts as a poet. Listen to the grand music she makes with small words. See how she uses breaks to pack in so much meaning and humor into such short lines, the way she deftly condenses a whole history of love affairs in the double entendre of "I'd take a way." Nearly every poem carries that surprise flash of insight, and that combo of melancholy and humor.
A restlessness in Wayson's voice lends the poems urgency. She uses poetry as a way to think, not merely as an artful record of thought. Or, as she puts it: "I've followed my thinking like a man out driving / —and just back there he missed the turn."
The shape of the book also contributes to this sense of restlessness. Though the poems stand on their own, each leads to the next as an extension or a refutation of the previous poem's argument. After Wayson presents a funny, exasperated poem about the pluralistic nature of relationships, she counters herself: "Am / can be without an I. Something sitting / insists in the window. Something of a mother / to come," she writes, evoking the abstract complexity of Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson.
It's a joy to try to keep up with Wayson as she unsettles every settled thought, and tries (successfully) to return mystery to the oldest subject in the book. Let's hope it doesn't take another decade until we have this joy again.