by Eric Stiefel
Jessica Pierce’s debut collection of poetry, Consider the Body, Winged (First Matter Press, 2021) is earnest, contemplative, and hauntingly elegant. Perhaps most importantly, the poems in Consider the Body, Winged are unflinchingly honest; they say what a less courageous poet might shy away from, what a less thoughtful poet might hide behind unnecessary flourish. Throughout the process of reading it, I found myself thinking of Jessica Pierce’s collection as a collection of meditations, each poem devoting its unfettered attention to the subjects at hand, from divinations and incarcerations to postpartum depression and lapsed faith.
The collection opens with a poem called “What do we know of endings?” (p. 13), which begins with an extended hypothetical: “And if the earth could gather up all / it contains, all its clouded greened / burning dusty torrential glory and grit…” the poem continuing on with bloated vultures and scrawny cats drawn into the image, new blues and crescent moons and wicked gods alike. Near the end, the poem turns toward introspection, asking if the world has room for “my grief / and my longing and your grief.” Then, after a pause, the poem makes a point to include “And maybe, / maybe, forgiveness.”
This mode of reflection maintains its presence in Consider the Body, Winged, where the poems are unafraid to address the quiet pains lurking in the corners of their rooms. As I made my way through Pierce’s collection, I found myself admiring the pure deftness of Pierce’s poems, how poems like “I finally told my grandfather I don’t believe in Jesus as God Incarnate” (p. 51) build and manage their tension with seamless control. This poem, for example, establishes its tension by referencing an emotionally fraught conversation with the speaker’s grandfather before contrasting it with the opening few lines:
I’m singing Christmas hymns to my son.
It’s February. He’s Jewish. But I know
the words, still, better even than most lullabies,
and when I’m this tired they come easy.
How he reaches for my face,
how in his world I am.
I’m struck, first by the restraint Pierce shows in leaving the imagined confrontation with the speaker’s grandfather offstage and second by the tenderness of the world she’s constructed in her opening lines: a mother singing hymns to soothe her young son, returning to Christmas hymns not because of their religious significance to the speaker, but because they’re what she knows, and she’s tired, and she wants to soothe her son. The poem continues, the speaker telling us “I leave out king for the offering // of glory, open my mouth wide / for peace on earth and mercy mild,” trying to build the world the speaker wants to see for her son as opposed to the one the speaker’s inherited. The speaker continues “I hush sinners; I don’t need that / hovering over either of us” before contemplating all that the son and the speaker don’t know.
Often, the poems in Consider the Body, Winged start off small and unassuming, with titles like “Talking about Buddhism with teenagers” (p. 45) and “After reading Hemingway and Kafka while alone in my Kolkata apartment, I pour another glass of Blue Riband gin” (p.18). There’s a delicate arc to poems like “Wikipedia defines a sound as deeper than a bight and wider than a fjord” (p. 32), which starts by considering a group of “thick-muscled” seals in a harbor, how they never travel more than a few miles from where they’re born, how we turn our gazes to them, how unnecessary we must be to them. “Besides our tilted gaze,” the poem wonders, “what do we bring to this hovering morning?” We’re left to wonder for ourselves in the white space of a stanza break before the poem ends on a sprawling six-line stanza, spreading outward toward the cosmic and the existential:
That we as a species can’t
agree on much, not even the shape of Earth
It’s a diamond propped up on seven pillars because
God likes the number seven. It’s a flat disk under
a great dome. This is not a planet at all;
We skim across a galactic pond on a vast expanse of ice.
And yet, as great as the gap between thinking about seals and reflecting on the nature of the cosmos is, Pierce is so skilled that the shift in thinking doesn’t feel forced or obtrusive. This is a collection that consistently reaches the heights of its daring, never dips down to the depths of “So what?” whether it turns its gaze to the speed of sound or the cicada, to students talking about politics or near misses with asteroids.
Many poems like “By fifth grade his son began avoiding eye contact, became increasingly fearful” (p. 55) and “We must soberly realize that various factors exist that can lead to disharmony, insecurity, and instability” (p. 26) imply their conflicts in their titles. “The first time I give my two children a bath alone” (p. 60), for example, implies a kind of Chekhov’s gun in its title before diving into a similarly ambitious and successful poetic arc.
“The first time…” opens with a brief but illustrative sketch of the speaker’s two children with “My daughter, three years old, sturdy and brow furrowed. / My son watching what I call light and shadow, but what he calls / nothing because he is still counted in days,” bringing us into the scene before raising the stakes with “All I see is him / slipping into the water, her staring at me with disdain,” grappling with the dual dangers of an infant’s safety and a young daughter’s distaste. The poem jumps, as Pierce’s poems are so good at doing, to the poem’s lurking threat: “There are mothers who drive into lakes / with their babies, mothers who jump out of windows with their babies… who send their babies in baskets down rivers / to save their babies” before a curt “no one told me I could be one of those mothers” into the speaker’s exasperated spiral in the last six lines, building to a poignant crescendo:
Because 4,500 blackbirds fall dead from the sky when fireworks explode.
Because salt rises from once fertile fields, and what used to make kings and queens
brings men to tears as they survey all they’ve lost. Because scientists debate
particles that could be faster than the speed of light and violate
cause and effect, and all I want is to cover my face
and the faces of my children with wings upon wings upon wings.
To my mind, good poems, especially great poems, say what we want to say, what we need them to say, not what we think they should say. And what I believe I’ve found in Consider the Body, Winged is a bold first book that isn’t afraid to play or wander or, most importantly, finish digging when it’s time to explore. The poems in this collection know when to push a subject further and when to avoid getting in their own way. They don’t try at tricks with flowery language or hollow spectacle; these poems simply are. And what they are is very good.
Eric Stiefel is a poet living in Athens, Ohio with his dog, Violet. He teaches at Ohio University, where he is also pursuing a PhD. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apple Valley Review, Prism Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.