Ashley Cline’s chapbook, & watch how easily the jaw sings of god (Glass Poetry Press, 2021) carves space out of wild and ethereal earthly images and metaphysical concepts. The work expands what we see as the world around us with a feral love story as the lens. You can’t help but think of a wolf yearning for the moonlight as you read of the speaker’s longing.
From the first poem, Cline creates a kind of prologue, a lore behind the main story. “byob, or yearning (in wintertime),” from which the title of the collection is drawn, precedes even the table of contents in the map of the collection. Its placement uniquely combines with its dying winter winds and haunting remnants of “antler fuzz & trapper fur / trimmings” in the spring, as if telling the story’s ending before even beginning. There’s a sense of eternity, of “the moon’s magnetism” in every line. Cline’s position as a storyteller in this collection is immediately apparent, allowing for the cohesion of the chapbook’s sometimes disparate elements.
The following poem, “picture Saturn’s rings,” illustrates some of that disparity, easily drifting away from springtime “lilacs and oceans” and the way a “garden sighs” to “slivers / of cosmic silver and rose gold dust.” Although the piece begins with more metallic notes, the tenderness embedded like soil through the collection is delicately rendered here, the titular rings compared to “wind chimes or wedding vows” and “nouns wrapped in parchment.” Nearly in the same breath, the poem speeds up like planetary motion, the speaker moving breathlessly to “& god how / gracefully you play conductor / of this orchestra you call my love—” The delicacy of this poem, despite the enormity of its subject (both in terms of Saturn and infatuation), twinkles just as the speaker describes “fingertips spill[ing] across my waist,” while also deepening to a cello’s crescendo.
Elsewhere, the speaker describes themselves as “dark matter,” yet in the next poem, asks their subject to “reconstruct me at sea level” and “splinter my bones … & call me wilderness,” to “bury your calcium howls.” Later, one of the collection’s most memorable images: “how they placed a plum / in a nuclear reactor // all nectar & heat & splitting / apart.” “counting summer in unitarity” mentions Hiawatha honey and bumblebees, and then notes “we had all we needed / to create a world” with stardust and helium-filled balloons they “sent to space,” finding themselves beneath a black hole and exploring their own solar system. It’s a challenge not to quote all of the dancing between floral scents and “the machinery / of quantum goodbyes,” but so much of the magic of this collection is encapsulated in this piece, where the natural world we see and the one we can only dream of collide, like atoms and bone fragments.
The intimacy and intensity of these poems threads through other themes. The speaker of “standing at the base of a martian cliff in spring, or how i learned to dance in mosh pits” draws the reader’s mind to the body with a pack—or perhaps just a pair?—of coyotes: “how we moved with / muscles nipping at each other’s feral reds & blues,” to “we moved like we knew / our hunger by her name.” This metaphoric language conveys a ferocity of the body’s rhythms, of how it moves among other bodies. As the collection progresses, these rhythms persist with references to pop music and 80s ballads; but they still carry mentions of hunger, of “wild mouths” and “untamed fur” and “fossilized howls & nocturnal bones.”
One of the collection’s most interesting pieces is “the worst part of breaking up in a Walmart parking lot,” a poem that is surprisingly bare of the imagery that soaks the rest of the collection in pine needles and chemicals. Those images are instead small tricks of language: “you laughed off a yellow jacket’s just a goddamn shopping / list,” or “all the silence you’ll have to drink.” There are plenty of moments where Cline could slip back into the howling and garden beds that live amongst the rest of the poems, but she simply doesn’t need to: the poem almost feels like a resignation—of the metaphors, of “the crushing the bruising the firing the drowning the remembering the / forgetting the breaking.” Although the other poems create an intoxicating world for the reader, this moment of lucidity in the middle, of complex emotion handled with simpler imagery (yet never simpler language), draws the reader’s eye to this shifting point in the speaker’s story.
Shortly thereafter comes a sort of climax—“the things we borrow,” a cinematic, 10-part poem that retreats heavily into the saturated forests Cline’s language brought us to previously, with glimpses back to the mechanisms we’re made of. At times, the speaker says, “i called my atoms in from outside.” Elsewhere, she “coughed up a blackbird’s feather whole,” and believes “they’re looking to roost inside my chest.” She seems to be wading through the whole history of her subject, and ends up here: “you left … i’m away now, thanks.” The speaker is haunted, but the ghosts “consume everything / but you.” Maybe there is no end to this story.
That poem drifts into its successor, and the speaker and her subject strive to “make a garden of all this” by learning each other again: “tell me, again, your origin story / tell me, again, // the name of your atoms.” They collide again, the next poem (crucially titled “radioactive summer / you are a chorus of fangs”) bursting with the repetition, “you howl—”; her lover now a “grinning Chernobyl wolf”, for whom “even the moon / bends.”
In the end, the difference between atoms and stardust and skeletons and sycamores no longer matters. The speaker and the lover “convince our clumsy mouths to / sing to longing, to sing of something in fashionable / furs—we thank her for her feral ache” although fearing “wintertime & war … until then, we’ll dance.” We are left with the image of the lovers growing into each other, “the way you / tend the garden that is my throat, suddenly in / bloom.” Maybe this love will never last. Or maybe, there is no end to this story.
Laurel Elizabeth is a writing tutor and success coach for Kennebec Valley Community College’s TRIO program, where she recently earned an associate degree in liberal arts. Additionally, she is a graduate of Vassar College’s Exploring Transfer summer program, and aims to begin a BA in English this fall. An emerging writer and aspiring English teacher, she has a special interest in the role of creative empowerment in education.