“Here is where I take you / behind the eyes / a glistening star,” writes Ashley Toliver in the opening poem of her chapbook, Ideal Machine. This is an invitation she extends to her readers to enter into and beyond her conscious state, as the speaker prepares to enter an anaesthetized sleep in a surgical unit. The vulnerability attached to such a precarious and submissive state is reflected in a cycle of tightly crafted lyric poems that never indulge in pity or manipulated pathos. Instead, the experience is more similar to the flashing phantasmagoria that enters our REM sleep during our lost hours, which represent our most private fears and desires. Like both the nightmare and the sweet dream, this is a book filled with startling surprises. Most importantly, this is a book that makes us actually feel something, no matter how terrifying that something might be.
The separation of body and spirit is a common thread throughout the collection, which is emphasized by anatomical diagrams of various lepidoptera. There is an acknowledgment of coldness in these depictions; the moths and butterflies are not here to represent flight or transformation, but to be a subject of scientific inquiry. What is particularly interesting is the manner that Toliver allows us to see her struggling with this notion. In this same opening poem, she writes:
how the cut is made
across my face could move any feeling
sear of the interior
here is the site I’ve dog-eared for you
taut as any waiting
my sudden fold of luck
we can’t put our hands on but you do
my brain arriving through the darkness
like streets mapping out
this mine this mine this mine
The emotional currency here, like all of the poems, is complicated. The speaker is simultaneously submitting control while also exerting control. The emphatic closing refrain of “this mine” is made all the more powerful precisely because of its urgency and emotional ambiguity. We can hear the words, but we can’t quite hear the inflection. Is she giving something away, or is she keeping something protected? In either scenario, there is a searing immediacy that jars our senses awake, which is one of the consistent strengths of Toliver’s work. Her approach to the fragment to create these moments of dissonance is stunning, appropriately enough, because of their surgical precision.
Another preoccupation is the manipulation of the page to provide plenty of white space between poems. About two-thirds through the book, we are confronted with the words, “dear Lepidoptera / womb of the mind / inside you our son splays to life” is followed immediately on the next page with, “dear daughter / you lived.” These moments appear as fragments splashed against an otherwise blank white canvas. In part, these function to allow us a brief moment of breath to signal a shift into pieces themed around parenthood. Yet there is still a haunting experience in their sparse display surrounded by nothing but the whiteness of the page. And in fact, the danger still looms, as we learn shortly after this moment:
dear son don’t flinch
when he comes for you
singing through my brain my face
lure you wait
shadows flat under the operating lights
scissor to flower to bone
If we have been seduced by a feeling of safety, this passage restores the experience of vulnerability; by transferring this vulnerability from mother to son, the ripple effects of bodily trauma and potential genetic risk become exponentially more profound. If a tumor is removed, where does it go? If something is removed from the body, what is put in its place? The closing line of this passage collapses the separation of the natural with the artificial, much in the way that moving forward post-surgery will never entirely allow the speaker to be at ease. The scissor will never be too far from the flower.
The entire collection is impressive, but it’s this final sequence of poems that soars on every level. There is a sense that Toliver’s voice bursts from its cocoon, abandoning the machinery established in the opening pieces of the book. Ideal Machine closes with these lines:
on days when I’m feeling especially cold I ride
through my own
icebox of logic
once I chose life over death
death is the last road to awe I know
These lines demonstrate the most impressive thing about Toliver’s work: she is a poet in complete control. She is capable of navigating through the thickest of emotional waters with precision and efficiency. Don’t let the fact that this manuscript is so brief (eleven poems, with a few interludes) fool you. This is a major work that takes the reader on a major voyage. Let’s hope that this marks the emergence of a poet headed for a major career.
Ideal Machine, by Ashley Toliver. Portland, Oregon: Poor Claudia. $10.00, hand sewn.
Lucas Pingel is an assistant professor at St. Catherine University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he has been the recipient of the Denny Prize for Excellence in Writing. He has authored three chapbooks of poetry, most recently Yes, This Was a Beautiful Place, a collaboration with BJ Love.