Beautiful Nerve by Sheila Squillante
"Here's your narrative that genuflects and unravels." This line from "Welcome to Ubiquity" could be the synopsis for Sheila Squillante's debut collection Beautiful Nerve recently released by Tiny Hardcore Press. "The poems are meant to unsettle," Lee Ann Roripaugh asserts in her blurb, and it's true. As the title suggests, Squillante's poems gently interrogate the nerves that plague us, massaging them into submission, pirouetting along the tightrope of stress and anxiety until we see pain and uncertainty as a tool of wonder.
Squillante explores a myriad of themes in this collection, many strongly bound by what it means to be a woman. The collection begins with "There's a Certain Slant of Light," opening with a familiar feeling of being a teenage girl alone in a room, reckoning with the ways that new perceptions change you.
this is what
it feels like
to be both. Winters under the window, bonfires
in the gutter drains.
In this poem, the speaker's understanding of the world is being "spirited backward and away/like an astronaut." The lines above assert the struggle of a binary, still a girl, but also a woman, coming of age and coming to terms with a sense of opposition alongside the ways that opposite forces become a whole, even in their seeming impossibility.
As the book progresses, Squillante further explores perception through contemplations of things in the natural world. Many of the poems have a keen eye for description in the same vein as Robert Hass or Mary Oliver, but they are more fraught; the truths come hard won. In "On Green," Squillante writes:
The green is a breach, a rupture
in the scrub; is pyramids or triangles
waving in a fronded surfeit. Green
Squillante begins by meditating on a color, but it turns into a philosophical exploration. The description meanders through surprising associates, and soon the color becomes personified in a way that makes it relatable in its longing, in its inability to be pinned down or defined in a simple or obvious manner.
The first section of the book flexes its muscle most in its seamless ability to merge narrative and lyric. In "Biopsy," the speaker wrestles with the anxiety of her health through past comforting memories alongside the harsh coldness of the surgical table. The narrative is clear, buoyed by gorgeous lyric moments like "Another placid, predictable tongue/to the opened prism of a beer bottle" and the stunning ending in which she declares, "Let go of your landscape; think, unconstellate."
This refusal of despondency and hopelessness threads throughout the collection, as the poems are steadfast in their questioning of cynicism and their assertion that hope and possibility nestle inside the cracks of despair and remorse. In "This Weather," one of my favorite poems, a new mother watches a television show and contemplates her life through the characters. One woman in the show has abandoned everything and run off. In the character, the speaker sees herself, a bit stunned by the stranger in her arms and the new topography of her body after motherhood.
In the series finale, everyone dies
in their own time and you hand your child -- whom you do love,
but inarticulately yet -- to your husband and you weep
for five and a half hours. You know you will drown
amid these strange, bright fluids. You will all bend
beneath this sweet, frightful weight.
As the speaker casts her baby into the arms of her husband and cries, she's become a version, albeit temporarily, of the woman who ran away, but that's not her fate. She will not escape womanhood or motherhood, nor would she want to: though the weight is frightful, it is also sweet. The fluids are strange, but they are also bright. The speaker wants to leave but also wants to stay. She wants to watch the lives of others change, but she also wants to live hers and watch the baby change. It's a lovely reflection of motherhood bound up in the innate fears of mortality.
Part Two of the book is comprised primarily of prose poems, and the tone shifts: the poems become surreal and dreamlike, though the images are loaded and forceful. In "Your Father Was a Lobster," the speaker goes back to teenage years, to sex in the basement and a father who is "crack-clawed, cooked." There's a boy and a phone and a secret, but the poem ends with a dream-man:
The dream-man was blond, thick lipped and breathless. He held you to his hips.
At first read, the "his hips" next to each other forced an echo that made me think of ships: thus, my image of the dream-man became a lobster trapper, rescuing the girl from the "rude red legs" of the father. The imagery is sensual and focused on the sexual awakening of the young girl as the dream is solely based on the man's physical features.
Part 3 of the collection focuses heavily on advice and wisdom in a variety of poetic forms, often coming as declarative assertions to the self. In "Make Up a Secret about Yourself," Squillante writes a numbered list, a technique that reminded me of the use of footnotes and definitions by Kristina Marie Darling. Another poem, "Test the Sweets of Life," is a short lyric advocating indulging in artwork.
However, one of my favorites is "Welcome to Ubiquity," which begins:
Wake to your mother's voice singing
in an off key and school shootings.
Here comes a day like any other.
Troublesome greys. A turquoise feather hat.
Here's your narrative that genuflects and unravels.
The school shootings insert themselves into the beginning of the poem like an attack, they jar you out of a sweet moment, as many of Squillante's poems do. She pairs the devastating with the consoling, the worrisome with the beautiful. She prays and comes undone in one stroke, but never loses sight of finding spirituality in the mundane, the beauty in the terror, the hope amidst the wreckage of grief, and the necessity of humor.
In this sense, the collection is a reflection of gratitude, and those who read it will be grateful they did.
Beautiful Nerve by Sheila Squillante
Tiny Hardcore Press