Book Reviews

Would it help you. Would you open: On Joanna Klink’s The Nightfields

James Ciano | Contributing Writer

Joanna Klink
The Nightfields
Penguin Books, 2020

Appearing midway through the first section of The Nightfields, Joanna Klink’s stark and enigmatic fifth collection, the poem “Givens” begins like this: “We were given a book, and the book stripped / the world down to dirt and to rain, captivity, / color”; it is as if the book Klink refers to is her own, the material object that I am holding in my hand. Rain, captivity, color—the sense is of walls collapsing: between the poet, the speaker, the reader—and something about the interconnection of all present and non-present parties in the experience of a poem (this poem, all poems), which contributes to the osmotic and celestial nature of Klink’s vision in The Nightfields.

In this collection Klink solidifies herself as a poet of lyric wonderment, angular beauty, and uncompromising vision. There is something of Merwin—and Strand—in Klink’s gestural approach to interrogating the self’s provisionality, with echoes of the deeply emotive, yet coolly delivered poems of Jon Anderson. At the center of Klink’s lyric resides the tension between profound emotional intensity and profound emotional delicacy. It is a poetics of intention, best captured by the book’s Rilkean epigraph “When I go toward you / it is with my whole life.” Yet within this intention exists a hush—the understanding, as Klink puts it in her poem “Portrait in Summer,” that “without silence / you would be thoroughly broken.” 

The Nightfields is split into three sections. In the first section, the poems concern themselves with personal losses. These poems are elegies, meditations, catalogues, and lamentations for the ways in which loss and beauty can transmogrify the silences and mysteries of quotidian experience into language. In this section Klink employs a repetitive titular scheme: “On Falling (Blue Spruce),” “On Diminishment,” “On Mercy,” etc. The titles and their repetitions set up a visionary and interrogatory stance; they don’t claim authority. The reader feels in these poems a subsumption of the speaker’s self, that self subsumed in service of looking for, as Klink puts it, “a way / out of pain.”

The book opens with “The Infinities,” a poem in three parts, which begins “I don’t know when it began, / the will to sort moment / from moment. . . .” The poem’s a catalogue, a reckoning with having to choose between what one can and cannot care about within an infinite realm of possibilities (and how, sometimes, life makes those choices for us by taking things away). The title itself—“The Infinities”—speaks to the book’s larger concerns: the endless daily sorting of our lives juxtaposed against the infinite realm of the cosmological and the universal. This tension plays out towards the end of the poem’s first unnumbered section, specifically in how Klink enjambs the “arms” of the speaker against the “pavilion twilight” in the third line below:

How is the snowfield
Scattered with dry leaves already
A pavilion of twilight. And my arms 
Just a motion in the great 
Soundlessness of sky.

As the book’s first section progresses, the poems grapple with losses on different scales: the loss of a sense of self, the loss of a lover, the loss of friends, the loss of a father. Throughout, Klink employs a second person “you” which changes shape from poem to poem—referring to the self, the lost beloved, the reader, and a spiritual higher being. The multiplicity of the pronoun “you” allows Klink to entangle all of lived and non-lived experience, across not only the boundaries between the pedestrian and the vatic, but also across the boundaries between speaker and reader, creating a sense of embodied interconnectedness across time and space.

Klink attunes her attention to what can be seen as well as to what “you dismiss along the way.” She is as much a poet who feels “incomprehensibly alive” as she is a poet aware that her “most fragile thought / can live inside you for months, / and you carry on / as if it weren’t real.” Her voice is both intimate and cosmic, as if speaking from nowhere and everywhere at once. The work dwells in the indeterminate possibilities of life—what it means to abide with suffering and beauty simultaneously, what it means—

Falling silent, to risk an
Opening, to find time

To be nowhere and lost
And to love. If we 
Can. If we do. 

Despite the first section’s exploration, along the same lines as the great Romantic poets, of the interconnectedness of the personal and the sublime (as well as the natural and preternatural realms), Klink’s The Nightfields is not atemporal. The second section of the book is comprised of a single poem, “New Year,” which creates a kind of interlude in the middle of the book while it contextualizes small- and large-scale ruminations (the kind of sufferings that Keats would call the “vale of soul making”) within a very specific socio-political and historical moment. 

In “New Year” Klink grapples with the very real and difficult notion of what it means to exist, to feel suffering and beauty, to be human at all,  when confronted with the overwhelming “darkness before our eyes,” that was the dawn of the Trump administration. She asks: “Who are they. What are we. What have we / abandoned to arrive with such violence at this hour.” In “New Year” Klink moves from the book’s first section, which consists largely of poems marked by a strong lyric “I,” to the use of the plural first person “we” in this second section. The literal dawning of the “New Year” and everything that came with the presidential inauguration of January 2017, seems, for Klink, to demand a democratization of experience, moving from the singular to the collective.

Klink breaks the poem into two distinct sections: an initial sixteen-line stanza full of mourning for what has been lost (“Too late for hope. Too far along / to meet a country, a people, its annihilating need”), and a second, much longer, stanza, which reads as a kind of collective call to action, “Here is the day, still to be lived. / We do not fully know what we do.” And later, “but we compass our worth, / prepare to do the work not our own.” In juxtaposing the hopeful litany of second stanza with the shorter mournful first stanza, Klink enacts an embodiment of resistance expressed best by the poem’s italicized line, “I will help you although I do not know you.”

The final section of the of The Nightfields is a long, sequenced poem in thirty-one parts called “Night Sky.” The sequence engages with the Roden Crater, a land art project under the direction of the artist James Turrell. Since 1979, Turrell has been transforming the crater into a kind of observatory that rodencrater.com calls “a gateway to observe, light, time and space.” The crater itself is an extinct volcano located in the Painted Desert in northern Arizona, and throughout the poem’s sequence Klink positions the speaker on the lip of the crater, looking out at the night sky: 

And what did you see, sequoia-quiet, looking out at black
night. No islands, no kings or corridors of fury. 
But the districts where we were born, a few icy stars, 
the moon’s beaming chalk thirst. Above the Painted desert . . .

There is perhaps no better position for the speaker-seer of Klink’s poems than at the edge of that crater—and the poems arrive as small lyrics, almost star-sized in the vast sky of the blank page. In their smallness we feel the tremendous silence of the white space beneath and between them. The number of poems in the sequence feels cyclical: thirty-one, like days of a month. Turn the page to any poem in The Nightfields’s last sequence, and you will experience the presence of a sure-footed guide who will lead you through the cosmos, through “welcome and farewell.” Klink affirms that it is “enough to spend / your life trying just to listen,” and offers, ultimately,  a vision of existence, of futurity, that endures. “Every day you ended, you began,” she writes. “And this is how a whole life unfolds—in minutes too painful and rich / for you to bear them.” 

James Ciano holds an MFA from New York University, and has received support from the Vermont Studio Center and The Community of Writers. A Pushcart Prize Nominee, his poems have recently appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Quarterly West, and Nashville Review. Originally from New York, he lives in Los Angeles, California where he is currently a Provost Fellow at the University of Southern California, pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing.

Joanna Klink is the author of five books of poetry. Her poems have appeared in many anthologies, most recently Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now and The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. She has received awards and fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, Jeannette Haien Ballard, Civitella Ranieri, the Bogliasco Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Trust of Amy Lowell, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Her fifth book, The Nightfields, was published by Penguin in July 2020. She teaches at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas.