Allison Seay’s ‘To See the Queen’
To See the Queen
by Allison Seay
Persea, $15.95 paperback, 80 pp.
With Seamus Heaney’s death so recent, I have been thinking almost constantly about a section from his poem “To a Dutch Potter in Ireland” from The Spirit Level. In the poem’s second section, the speaker asserts, “To have lived it through and now be free to give / Utterance, body and soul—to wake and know / Every time that it’s gone, and gone for good, the thing / That nearly broke you— // Is worth it all, the five years on the rack, / The fighting back, the being resigned, and not / One of the unborn will appreciate / Freedom like this ever.” This complexity of feeling is one that underlies the poems in Allison Seay’s debut collection To See the Queen; even at their darkest, these poems make certain that it is not out of singular experience or languishing that these poems arrive, but instead out of a sort of fortitude only gained by struggle. The poems in To See the Queen are not revelatory or celebratory in an easy, we’ve-survived-this-and-are-stronger-for-it way. No, these poems are too difficult, too potent for that. Instead, the speakers here use an intimacy with an Other embodied as the book’s spectre-queen Liliana (who appears in various forms throughout the book’s crossing—as figment, as sadness, as imagined pasts and futures, as God) as a way to plumb the depths of the complexity of deep emotion and thus be, even in some small way, healed.
If a collection teaches us how to read it as it progresses, then this book tutors us in silence, in motionlessness: the first line of the book reads, “If I am still enough I see Liliana, a figment” (“The Figment”). And so it is with stillness that the reader enters the collection, and how the reader comes to learn the book’s truths and ways of entering the world. We are called to the book with a stance of calm, of patience—which is not to be confused with passivity, because here the space is charged, otherwise filled, “a crystal song, a hymn // in the piano’s high octaves” (“The Sadness”). Reading this book is like watching a building burn: at once terrifying, strangely beautiful, and through-and-through haunting.
“Town of the Beloved,” in the book’s second section, reveals the speaker’s essential plea: “Wake up please wake so that I might tell how it is.” This feels as much a plea to the reader as to the lover addressed in the poem. In a variety of ways across the book, the speakers are asking, fundamentally, for an audience with the aware reader, the reader who has “woken up.” Even at their most sorrowful and isolated the poems give us true speakers in conversation with someone outside of the self (sometimes as the self re-externalized in the form of a god or figment). It is from this instinct not just to speak but to be heard that poems such as “Ultima Thule,” at the book’s center, arrive:
half our bed a sheet of tiny prisms
we sleep like that
you will not learn
again your truck is out of gas
my hair to my waist once
and then to my chin
I thought I was saving you
and the stray cat
and the fire in the kitchen
at the end
the end of the known
the refusal of love
the fine enough
the answer is there is no answer
Pointing to the collection’s general crisis, both in its title and scope, this poem challenges the reader to stay “still enough” amidst the poem’s accumulating and unfurling associations so that she may arrive at revelation of the last line. Within the unchartedness, the wildness of the view, the sadness and the settling, the poet keeps the poem moving around us with an urgency borne of survival.
A book that centers on sadness and its many forms could be exhausting, but here the very fact of the poems bears a witness: in the world of Seay’s collection, things are made miraculous and beautiful by their very continued existence in the face of—and finally past—the crisis. For instance, “Bathing” offers one of the book’s most unadorned and arresting visions of the speaker’s suffering:
I have been alone with the thing itself.
The depression. The defective heart. God.
Inside my mind it is dawn. A wolf appears with a bird
in its mouth. Blue feathers, my fate, the beautiful white throat.
That the quotidian act of bathing holds in it “the defective heart” and God, that the speaker’s interior allows for both the savagery of the wolf and the heart-stoppingly perfect “blue feathers, my fate, the beautiful white throat,” renders an understanding that any saving in these poems will be because of and through—not in spite of—the speaker’s experience at the edge of the abyss. We see this all the clearer when the wolf figure returns in “Wolf Town,” in which the speaker reaches to understand a lover’s betrayal through an imagined existence:
And it may take forever to finish imagining
the shutters, the rooms, the flowers and vines.
What was that story of a beam in the ceiling
that took him weeks? My whole life is in and out
of the kitchen: either the door opened to the woods
so we faced the bright world or, while we ate that
little supper, we kept our backs to the wolves.
This kaleidoscopic way of looking at the world across the space of the book—where first the wolf parades its caught prey of the speaker’s “fate,” later the wolves are in effect kept from the imagined house by the speaker’s disavowal of them—is part of how the poet keeps the reader’s focus honed and subverts a tedium that could come from such singular focus on feeling.
The collection’s landscape charts the speakers’ changing ways of entering the sadness—not linearly but thematically. The three sections move from the queen-haunted first section named for her, “liliana,” to “geography of god’s undoing,” the section that most closely yokes God and love together (and witnesses the loss of both), and finally to “room of the queen’s dreams,” returning to Liliana as figment, sadness, strange savior. “Room of Second Sleep,” from the book’s final section, finishes by showing us a twin for Liliana herself:
When she [Liliana] offers the drink
I know to drink deeply
it is God’s Elianna
(He has answered)
I pour her over ice
in a champagne flute
Liliana has taken myriad forms throughout the book, and here, nearing the book’s close, we see her once again incarnated, this time as both the giver and the celebratory gift of Elianna, a name variant of Liliana. When, early in the book, the speaker of “The Queen” says “I shout, / ‘Are you there, are you even there?’” the reader feels it as a calling out from the place of betrayal, of abandonment. And yet after surrendering ourselves to the book’s many sorrows and its many beauties, if we are very vigilant and very silent, we understand that Liliana herself is the answer.