by Stephanie Cawley
(Tiny Hardcore Press/2015)
“This is what it feels like / to be both,” thinks the speaker of the first poem in Sheila Squillante’s debut collection Beautiful Nerve. And in the second poem, “Fear,” the speaker anxiously considers (or tries not to consider) “how small and frank the space between / the whole and the part,” alongside images of horse vivisection and human bodies being sliced in two. Exploring the relationship between parts and wholes is a useful way to look at Squillante’s collection of poems, poems interwoven by a system of “beautiful nerves,” at once delicate and tough, more steel wool than cotton candy.
The book is structured in three sections: the middle section consists of prose poems that chart scenes of anxious dreams about family and the body, full of bears and a fish-woman and a falling neoprene sky. The first and third sections contain more lyric and fragmented poems that explore similar thematic and emotional terrain.
Though the center section is fun to read, the real pleasure of the collection, for me at least, is in the obsessional, interlocking series of poems in the first and third sections, poems like “One Sparrow in a Flock of Sparrows from Here On,” “A Wonderful Surprise,” “Make Up a Secret About Yourself,” and “Divine Girl.” In moments of these poems, lines or phrases repeat in partial or modified echo: in “One Sparrow in a Flock of Sparrows from Here On,” the speaker says, “History is to separate or divide / in thought” and “Probably he made small talk,” while in “A Wonderful Surprise,” the speaker writes, “In history, your friend sleeps / on the sofa,” and “Separate or divide the unsightly place where secrets / bring small talk.” In other moments the poems seem almost like erasures of each other. In many, images like salt or the color blue are laden with meanings and associations developed in other poems. The title of one poem early on becomes a closing line of a much later poem, and so on.
But it becomes impossible to chart the relationships neatly, creating an effect that is both dizzying and delightful. The intricately telescoping tangle of these poems—like neural wiring, like arteries, like roots of plants—resists an easy decoding, offering instead a brilliant bouquet of “nervous yellow bloom[s].”
I am tempted to say these are poems of the mind—its jagged anxieties, uneasy associations, and lucid moments of wonder—but they are, just as much, also poems of the world the mind perceives, rendered in lush and eccentric detail. In “Perquisite,” the speaker holds “antique glass doorknobs” to her eyes so “the world looks clear and equally swag.” And the body, its failing knees and cancerous freckles, is often the center and source of this mind’s turnings. There are poems of both anxiety and love, terror and joy. Perhaps it is through these refusals to disentangle, to reduce or settle, that Squillante guides us, as readers, through “what it feels like / to be both.”