‘Solve For Desire’ finds more questions than answers

Monday, January 15, 2018 - 4:36pm

“This is the first time I’ve written to you / and I know now why they call me little witch.”

In “Solve for Desire,” a slim collection of poems, Caitlin Bailey imagines and explores the lives of Georg Trakl and his younger sister Grete, to whom Bailey dedicates the work. Georg Trakl was a late 19th-century Austrian poet who struggled with addiction, served in the army, attempted suicide and died of a drug overdose that may have been intentional. Grete committed suicide at a party a few years later. The extent of their relationship is unknown.

The poems in “Solve for Desire” are consumed with the wells of wanting that lie underneath our more innocent, more easily articulated wishes. She examines both savage desire and raw grief, wondering how memories of ourselves exist in words on both sides. “Pigeons” considers the jarring dissonance between literal anatomy, emotional pain and the instability of them both. “Poem About Desire,” a slight 22 words, captures the fiercely inconsequential beauty of small things, of runaway moments crystallized in amber. The final few lines of “The Heart is to a Pleasant Thing,” without directly referencing its subject matter, reproduces the moment that uncertainty hardens into determination in someone’s eyes. “Right Light” finds the hint of hope found in the circumlocution of a prophecy. More than a few poems feel eerily reminiscent of the language of incantations, echoing cadences that have slipped through our memories.

The poems do not wander; they stay intensely focused on their subjects. A few images are woven throughout the whole collection. Palms, wrists and necks are referenced several times; snake imagery lies coiled throughout. Occasionally, the unpredictability of a phrase verges on a lack of clarity, and the introduction of enjambment in later poems is startling. But eventually, they coalesce into a communication of the visceral ache of loving someone who wishes for deliverance; the misery of wanting to tell them about it when they aren’t there to listen; the struggle to translate wounds into words.

Desire can dwindle and it can die. That’s not Bailey’s concern. Rather, she focuses on how desire can consume like a flame held to piece of paper dipped in oil, leaving nothing but a trace of smoke. She’s painting the oily gradient of darker desires, the eroticism of an inappropriate possession that verges on a question more weighted than being ready to die for someone: being ready to live for them. It’s a question that will never — and maybe shouldn’t — be solved. 

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“Solve for Desire”

Caitlin Bailey

Milkweed Editions

December 2017