Southern Indiana Review Press / 2021 / 60 pp/ $16.95
Reviewed by Lynnell Edwards / February 2022
Julia Koets’s Pine, winner of the 2019 Southern Indiana Review Press’s Michael Waters Poetry Prize, is a lyric meditation on the queer body and desire. It draws deeply on the poetic potential of etymology and the sensuous landscape of the American South, its waters and deep forests. Pine is Koets’s second collection of poetry; the first, Hold Like Owls, was also a prize winner, as was her second collection that won the 2017 book award from Red Hen Press for non-fiction: Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays.
Pine, beautifully made to hold and behold, is elegantly divided into two sections: potentiality and ephemera, broadly chronicling the speaker's emergence from adolescent crushes into adult, erotic love. The endless summer mood of the book’s first half, potentiality, leans into the blooming of adolescent desire. It sings of first loves and lake loves; the tender poem “Boys” remembers “boy who/wore a rubber band around one wrist, across-a-river/ boy, boy I kissed underwater.” The poem that follows, “Boathouse” tells of the boy who she tried to tell the truth of her desire, the intimacy impossible in the South: “I love a girl.” The poem ends with the desire lines of morning, a not-quite-aubade, as she sees the sunrise and the potentiality of “Blue Ridge, red river, morning at my feet.”
Images of the ocean, the surface of the lake in summer; horses in a field and of course pines—the evergreen anchor of the American south in the title poem—punctuate the first section. The title poem “Pine” looks toward the Oxford English Dictionary for its structure with documented quotations from primary sources, for each of the enumerated definitions, each entry revealing the prickly and steadfast facets of adolescent desire:
1. to want without seeing: “We look before and after, / And pine for what is not.”
. . .
4. (archaic) to torment or afflict with pain. “They prick us and they pine us.”
. . .
12. to suffer grief. “Those who thrown nets on the water will pine away.”
A similarly formed poem "Shed" opens the second section, ephemera, though the illustrative examples of each definition do not lean as entirely on documentable sources as they do in “Pine,” and instead suggest a narrative of erotic encounter, themes of desire:
1. an antler that’s fallen off the head of a deer, elk, or moose. Searching for a
shed in the woods is a study in loss.
2. to take off one’s clothing. We shed our clothes all over your floor.
. . .
7. a structure built for shelter. We kiss secretly in the shed in your parents’ backyard.
. . .
9. a fragment. This poem is only part of the story, a shed of the story.
Brilliantly, that which was once central to the identity of a stag, now shed becomes part of the forest's ephemera, as a poem cast from the act it memorializes calcifies, preserves that moment as in amber.
A series of four villanelles, each titled “Antlery,” excavate the erotic violence of conflict denoted between two males (stags) and suggest a brilliant and totemic symbol for the queer body, existing as both male and female, as in the first in the series in ephemera, which immediately follows “Shed”:
. . . Velvet growths from the skull
both of wooing and wounding, our antlers
differ in the number of tines: fixtures
of wanting, of waging war.
Throughout both sections the villanelle, with its gently obsessive structure, serves as a governing form with elegiac poems (“A Villanelle for Jodi Foster” ) or as ars poetica in “August,” a lyric memory of childhood mornings at the swimming pool that converges with a scene of breakfast with her lover and concludes: “One morning over breakfast you said / a good poem is like that: a kind of bed.” Likewise, images of the moon: moon jellies, the harvest moon, a moon wedding, the curve of the moon in her lover’s back: “each bone : a moon : a linear diagram / down her back.” (“Moon Prayer”) show their alternately light and dark faces in each new context.
Koets delights in deep semantic explorations, and throughout a series of brief, lyric odes meditates on the metaphorical possibilities of various objects commercially branded or otherwise referred to as Eros, beginning with the acronym for Emergency Respiratory Oxygen System in airplanes, and suggesting: “Fear of certain kinds of desire / can manifest in the body like hypoxia.” Others argue for Eros as fish (after Jesus’ miracle of the 5000); as bicycle (after Audre Lorde and the Bianchi Eros); as high school, with its “algebraic proof to testify / to how desire is true in every case.”; as asteroid and the attendant myth which Koets inhabits anew:
I draw sky charts by hand to find you.
I look for you in every darkness.
I make the following observations of Eros:
bruises, the marks your fingers left on my thighs,
look like the sky at the end of the night.
The penultimate poem which follows, “Vernal Equinox,” is an intimate, domestic scene of morning reconciliation: "Forgiveness has been thin, a camisole." The villanelle begins to deconstruct in the third stanza, the lines becoming longer, fragmented, even as the most ephemeral of images—string, steam, clouds, eggs broken into a bowl—stitch it tight and suggest the fragility of a love that might easily dissipate into an unforgiving larger world. Ephemeral, Koets suggests with this almost disappearing scene, but, like the rest of the collection, utterly necessary.
Lynnell Edwards is the associate programs director for the Sena Jeter Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing, where she is also faculty in poetry and professional writing. Her five collections of poetry include, most recently, This Great Green Valley (2020); Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop, Covet, The Highwayman's Wife, and The Farmer's Daughter. Her book reviews, poems, and short stories have been included in numerous journals including Pleaides, New Madrid, American Book Review, Sou'wester, and Waccamaw. Lynnell is an associate editor and book reviews editor for Good River Review.