I first encountered Michael Joyce’s work in 1998, in a graduate seminar at the University of Iowa on hypertext fiction featuring such works of his as Of Two Minds, Afternoon (“the granddaddy of hypertext fictions”), Twilight: A Symphony, and Twelve Blue. The highlight of this course, and of my graduate studies as a whole, was the three-day workshop at the end of the semester in which Joyce and his Storyspace hypertext program co-creator Jay David Bolter visited the class and generously offered us unfettered access to their creative processes. I can’t speak for the others, but this experience changed every aspect of my life by fostering and celebrating connections among disparate genres and topics and regenerating my enthusiasm for the field of literary studies. Since that time, I have, with great reverence, read most of Joyce’s creative and theoretical works. His latest book of poetry has already assumed its place at the pinnacle of my favorites due to its exquisite blend of artistry and accessibility, its display of strength through vulnerability, and Joyce’s raw willingness to put himself out there in ways I haven’t seen to this degree in his other works.
Upon my first (of seven thus far) journey through Capricorn, Venus Descendant: 50 Poems of Pandemos, Karkinos, & Eros, I instantly knew that Joyce had outdone even himself this time. He comes out swinging in “Blankets,” right away invoking “[t]he sweet burrowing beneath, embrace / of distant wave translated to mere thrum” and maintains this eloquently erotic energy across all fifty poems before closing (with co-author CG) with the heartbreakingly beautiful “Sea,” in which the authors take turns contemplating passing before the other:
If one of us goes, she says, the other will launch into the ocean
of interstice, waters of the upper seas beneath which, still, this
river flows the course we’ve set for it …
When one of us goes, he says, the other will already be there
“Where the two seas meet,” our love a boundless estuary.
The 48 intervening poems offer linguistically ingenious glimpses into a raw and epic love story that has only gained momentum with proximity. The overarching narrative traces a union in “Commedia,” in which the present is laden with their shared past, but also other pasts—real and imagined—that come into and out of focus throughout the collection: “a knot differently tied, scarlet cords of the P’anch’ang, its bud both open and closed at once …”
As with any work of its kind, certain of the poems hit me harder and stayed in my mind longer than others, due largely to their resonance with my own experiences and to whether I got particular textual and mythological references. I was drawn throughout, for instance, to the rich images of nature: the seasons, the river, and the garden. The twentieth poem, “Men,” quite differently captivated me and lingers. Its tangibility draws us into a specific moment while invoking more timeless pangs of secondhand nostalgia:
Suddenly, she shares the memory of learning to skate
upon a field at her husband’s sister’s farm
after the birth of their son. Something she wanted
to do for herself, the family they had wanted done,
widening circles begun without really knowing
how far she would circle.
The speaker’s musings on a past from which he was excluded appear throughout the work and underscore the complexity and undercurrents of the primary love affair. Because each partner has enjoyed a meaningful life before, the time they have spent together is only enriched by their complex histories.
“Awake” also struck a chord through the speaker’s vulnerability over, “the event of the first night in years they’ll not/share this bed.” Even this far into the relationship, he can’t bear even the thought of separation:
And so he tries now to disguise his forlorn sobs,
she’s suddenly uncertain of the choreography of how
to release this fugitive shadow and let sleep drift its
blue linen over them, but then he gently guides her
down, imprinting is lips upon the lacy caramel pistil
at the glowing center of the night blooming allium.
Each poem traces one or more aspects of this interconnected dyad and captures this love story’s heightening depth and complexity over time.
While each single-word titled poem is discrete, self-contained, and masterfully crafted, key themes playfully emerge and recur throughout the collection. As Joyce’s sub-title promises, these are poems of Pandemos, evoking images of “sensual pleasure,” and “Awake” is hardly the only one to end suggestively. Aphrodite and Venus run amok, especially in the final lines of many of the poems, including “Frieze,” “Feet,” “Estuary,” “Tiger,” “Waltz,” “He,” “Leaf,” “Honeysuckle,” “Reticulate,” and “Serpentine,” among others, and herald myriad intimacies and intimations.
While whimsically risqué in places, it’s the redefinition of the erotic through transcendence of raw physicality that gets to you, such as in “Blankets”:
the nights of becoming wrapped in rapt
thrashing gone into something gentler,
fog of exhalation settling over the river,
rising, then sailing off beneath the sun …
Capricorn, Venus Descendant displays Joyce’s finest attributes—eros, erudition, jocularity, insight, and ingenuity, to name a few—and invites any of us who picks up the book, regardless of training in poetic convention or academic discourse, to discover meaningful points of entry and pave our own way through the book’s well-woven network of possibilities.
Capricorn, Venus Descendant: 50 poems of Pandemos, Karkinos, & Eros, by Michael Joyce. Frankfort, Kentucky: Broadstone Books, May 2022. 64 pages. $18.00, paper.
Cinda Coggins Mosher earned her PhD in English from the University of Iowa in 2001 and is an Associate Professor of Instruction in the Rhetoric Department and director of the UI Speaking Center. Her scholarly interests include critical thinking, uses of propaganda, hypertext fiction and theory, disjunctive poetry and prose, composition, speech, and academic freedom. Her faculty teaching awards include a Hubbard-Walder Award for Excellence in Teaching (2021), President and Provost Award for Teaching Excellence (2015), a CLAS Collegiate Teaching Award (2013), and an International Advocate Award (2013-4). She was named the inaugural CLAS Dean’s Distinguished Lecturer for calendar years 2015-2016.