Alicia Mountain’s new poetry collection Four in Hand (BOA Editions, 2023) is comprised of four heroic crown sonnets—a sequence of fifteen interlinking sonnets wherein the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next, and so on, and the fifteenth sonnet consists of the first lines of the previous fourteen. Quite a complicated structure indeed, and tricky to pull off, but Mountain does so masterfully. She weaves together eloquent, and at times archaic, language with urgent issues like late-stage capitalism, the pandemic, environmental devastation, LGBTQ issues and discrimination, drone strikes, the 2016 election, etc. with contemporary references and found text. Mountain also offers contemplations of familial structures, her gay poetic lineage, love and loss, as well as investigations of the self and place. Aside from the political undercurrents and heavier themes, Four in Hand is also tender and personal suffused with numerous kinds of love, including the lingering love that persists even after heartbreak, “I offer to trade you / a poem for the story of the place we pressed / our bodies together.” This book feels like a necessary antidote to the crushing pressures and anxieties facing us today.
A narrative thread is braided through the book, submerging then reemerging signaled by motifs like “train tracks,” “the queen,” and “violet,” “which operate as anchors that ground the poems and refocus the reader’s attention. The form lends itself to this loose, nonlinear narrative and though each heroic crown appears disparate at first you begin to notice the intricate patterns as you read further.
Each sonnet rolls effortlessly into the next, turning the meaning of its last line to mean something completely different—even opposite—when it becomes the first line of the next sonnet. For example, the last line of the ninth sonnet in the first sequence “Train Town Howl” reads “whomever you love. They belong beside you,” which seems to be a lament that their ex-lover likely has a new lover. But in the next sonnet, the same line reads as well-wishing towards the lover rather than lamentation—the speaker is now expressing to their past lover that they deserve to be with someone they love, whomever it may be, and be happy. Mountain achieves this reversal of meaning simply by changing the sentence structure. As a last line “whomever you love” is part of the sentence that begins in the previous line, but as the first line of the tenth stanza, “Whomever you love” is the beginning of the sentence, starting a thought rather than completing one. It’s a tiny change but has a significant impact, which is a testament to the virtuosity of Mountain’s. The syntax is delicately crafted and each period, comma, line break, and word, and is intentional.
On the note of intentionality, while many sonnets in the collection resemble traditional sonnets, the sonnet form never feels tired because of Mountain’s experimentation. In the second sequence “Sparingly,” she pushes the boundaries of the form: each line consists only of a single word. A traditional sonnet puts pressure on the line as a unit, by using one word per line Mountain zeroes in on the word, forcing us to linger with each word and really notice them, hold on to each syllable, savor the sounds.
Despite the dark cloud of political instability, environmental degradation, and loss that permeates, Mountain finds moments of lightness and hope, especially in the “elementary poets” the speaker is teaching poetry. They like “butts and cats and killing” and the girls are “purple princes too.” This childhood silliness and wonder contrasts the “The sinister lever-pull that will not right us / came swift in November,” meaning the election of Donald Trump and the dividedness of the nation. Mountain asks, “How long has it / been since you worked for an hourly wage?” exemplifying the disconnect between the wealthy and the politicians and the rest of us. By posing this question and then going to work with eight-year-old poets, the speaker is deciding to do not be crushed by despair and do the important work of investing hope in the future, represented by the children, and in small but not inconsequential actions. Such a kernel of optimism is found when “Eight-year-old writes, We befriend enemy / countries like we were never enemies.” A vision of a more peaceful world without senseless violence—a better world.
Four in Hand is an epic, ambitious work, the opulent landscapes, gentle intimacy, and acute awareness of corruption and destruction that we are complicit in, “Often, I forget I am a benefactor / of war by birthright,” will percolate in your brain long after you’ve put the book down. It is a perfect alchemy of the personal and the political, of abundance and sparsity, of the quotidian and the extraordinary. Mountain demonstrates dexterity in both form, lyric, and blank verse while retaining a pleasurable cohesiveness. This book is achingly beautiful and exemplifies the magic of poetry—how at its best, poetry can touch you deeply; make you feel, and think, and cry, and hope, and yearn, and be glad to be alive.
Four in Hand is available from BOA Editions
Max Stone is in his final semester as an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from UNR in 2019. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City. His poetry has been published in Black Moon Magazine, & Change, Fifth Wheel Press, Sandpiper Review, Night Coffee Lit, Caustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also book artist and retired college soccer player.