PINE, a poetry collection by Julia Koets, reviewed by Carolyn Oliver

Pine, winner of the Michael Waters Poetry Prize, is the second book of poems by Julia Koets (author of Hold Like Owls and The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays). Grounded in the woods, fields, and shores of the South, these poems chart the love between women, by custom and necessity long kept secret. Pine is a book about needle-sharp eros—not only desire for the beloved, but desire for recognition, for new ways of being seen. “All summer we lived in a bowl of glass,” Koets writes in “Eros as Fish.” “Look in the sky and you will see us there. / Look in the water—there, too.”

A book careful both in its composure and its composition, Pine finds the speaker’s emotions corralled by form (elegies, thank-you notes, definitions, villanelles, bespoke blended forms) and tone (a range of elegiac registers). These willing constraints are reinforced by an elegant structure: a pair of sections linked by the fluid movement of images across poems. The dissected frog in “Eros as High School” reappears, freed, in “Thank-You Note to E.T.’s Elliott”: “You taught me how to stand on a boy’s back and kiss the prettiest girl I know. The floor, covered in frogs.” An apple orchard is a safe haven in the poem “Apple Season”; in “A Sure Break,” as the speaker contemplates separation from her beloved, “apples come like bruises.”

No image in the book is static. In “The Breakers,” for example, Koets gives us two images of breath, one of ease and one of effort: “Sea bells, our diaphragms / swell & let go” and “The ocean breathes & / we swim against the pull of its lungs.” In the next poem, “Eros as Oxygen Mask,” in which the speaker remembers kissing a girl for the first time, breath becomes a struggle: “In a brown paper bag, I test my lungs’ capacity / for fear.”

“Potentiality,” the first of the book’s two sections, is charged with the possible, with the coiled energy of buds eager to spring open, as in the first poem, “The Science of __________”: “Two girls / in a field test the science of buttons. / Their shirts soon break into yellow blooms.” There’s a tactile quality to these poems, which radiate the heat and humidity—simultaneously stifling and enriching, the engine of luxuriant growth—of Southern summer. Ranging across this landscape, Koets imagines a wedding on the moon, itemizes all the wrong boys, mourns the biological daughter she and her lover won’t have.

Two poems titled “Solstice” appear in this section, the day at its zenith suggesting the highs of first, forbidden love. But a long day means fewer hours of night to hide in. “You time your affection so no one suspects / we’re more than friends,” Koets writes in “Elegy for Selenography”:

One night I dare you to skinny dip with me,

no one in sight. In the best of worlds,
which isn’t our world, I imagine
how we dive into Mare Cognitum,
sea where all becomes known.

The response to the speaker’s request is suspended, unknown, in the stanza break. The ambiguity is extended in Koets’s the exquisite line breaks and enjambment, which allow for multiple understandings of each line. Read aloud, “sea” becomes “see,” a ghostly imperative behind the line’s plain meaning.

The poems in “Ephemera,” Pine’s second section, are still rooted in the South and in the risks of queer desire, but as summer gives way to the late seasons, so fields and shore give way to interior domestic spaces, where the frictions between the speaker and object of her desire are foregrounded. I was reminded of Anne Carson’s description of eros as lack in Eros the Bittersweet, an eros “deferred, defied, obstructed, hungry, organized around a radiant absence.” “[W]ooing & wounding, our antlers // differ in the number of tines: fixtures / of wanting, of waging war,” says the speaker in the first of four poems titled “Antlery,” in which conflicting versions of desire, and the longing “to hold one another / as we were” make the speaker pine for an earlier version of the relationship.

In this uncertain space—“scan the distance between nesting and wintering” in “Nightjar, Opening”—the speaker interrogates desire itself. Reflecting on her partner’s “persistence // on a single narrative of queerness / story in which you didn’t consider yourself a character,” she muses that maybe “damage / is a system more reliable than desire” in “Eros as Operating System.” In the final poem of the first section, the speaker imagined “falling for her again” as an animal (a deer, perhaps?) “crossing in the dark”; in another of the “Antlery” poems, desire is again figured as animal:

We tricked ourselves (foolish innocence)

into thinking we could want without consequence.
If I compare desire with deer: quietly
through snow at night, finding the scent

of every buried thing. In its defense
(I’m always defending desire), maybe
it’s what we need to get through.

Desire as a deer unburying what is secret, desire that needs to be defended—it’s an arresting image of vulnerability.

Like the “Antlery” poems, more than a quarter of Pine’s poems are villanelles, so melodic and supple they’re nearly liquid. Immensely skillful, Koets plays with slant rhymes, homophones, and divergences from the refrain both subtle and substantial. There’s no hint of rigidity in these villanelles, which include an ode to Jodie Foster; “Hull & Hollow,” a stunning poem about stagnancy as a boat run aground; and “Preservation,” which reads as a companion piece to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” In Bishop’s poem, the speaker recounts her losses; in Koets’s, the speaker—from an uncertain position—catalogues the comfortable disorder of a life lived together: “the only things remaining are things we kept / coming home to. Places where memory slept.”

Potentiality and ephemera: what might happen, what won’t last. And yet Koets leaves us with the vernal equinox, the balance of day and night in spring. Morning light gilds a house where we see two women mending what’s worn, breaking eggs to start the day. A beginning, even if it’s impossibly fragile.

Pine is an exceptionally eloquent, well-wrought collection, whose candor will be particularly meaningful to those of us who could not dare, even in secret, to be “the girls / who lie down in fields, their bicycles / on their sides, too, like horses / asleep in the sun.”

Pine, by Julia Koets. Evansville, Indiana: Southern Indiana Review, April 2021. 72 pages. $16.00, paper.

Carolyn Oliver’s poems appear or will appear in The Massachusetts Review, Indiana Review, Cincinnati Review, Radar Poetry, Shenandoah, Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Indiana Review, Cherry Tree, Plume, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry, and the Frank O’Hara Prize from The Worcester Review, where she now serves as co-editor. Carolyn lives in Massachusetts with her family. Online: carolynoliver.net.

What’s HFR up to? Read our current issue, submit, or write for Heavy Feather. Buy our merch.