Wednesday, December 17, 2008



In No One's Land by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2007)

What is the difference between no man's land and no one's land? In her 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Prize winning collection, In No One's Land, Paige Ackerson-Kiely reveals that it isn't just a question of gender neutral language. She illustrates no one's as a populated desolation, a sense of isolation that the presence of people cannot dispel, yet this land is not altogether bleak.

As the necessary result of life in such a world, the individuals who appear in her poems express a sense of loneliness. The speaker of "Nocturne IV" notes "[y]ou weren't anywhere I was planning to go" and refers to night as an "excuse to get somewhere / not directly" hinting at a deviation to seek company. The woman in the bar in "Illness" says "yeah, I've got abandonment issues." In “Interrogation", love can only be admitted under world-changing circumstances.

This sense of seclusion remains, is perhaps heightened, when an individual is surrounded by other people. No matter how many people occupy their world, they remain, to translate part of the collection's epigraph, "with no one". The general namelessness of people serves to prevent them from appearing as full, real people capable of assuaging isolation; this is emphasized in "Love Letter" with the claim of an impossible name: "twenty-four letters long plus seventy-two words for snow."

Indeed, those names that do appear seem distanced or unimportant. Roscoe Holcomb is only claimed as an identity for a moment and Cy Twombly is only an epistle's addressee. Helen Keller, mentioned in that letter, is described not as a person known in the flesh but as one read about in a book. Ataturk is apostrophised sardonically. Peter Freuchen only nods and takes notes. Ada Blackjack is a daughter's name, and that is all we know. Jesus, not exactly human, distant as all mythic figures, does things no historical Jesus could have. "Svalbard is my tiny gun." Still, I might have reduced the number of names mentioned to increase the impression of being surrounded by strangers.

Disposing thus of the named, we are left with, at best, incompletely known and identified figures and, as in the "The Potential of Rapture", a stranger's "face is no curling-up in bed", no matter how s/he smiles. Everyone must remain strangers if the speaker of "Different Kinds of Clean" speaks true in saying, "Most stuff you should hide. Kids know this, / babies . . ."

Flat or otherwise unknown or not fully identified people cannot ease the sense of desolation. Both speaker and addressee of "Foreplay" seem unmoved after the recounting of so many people in schoolyard-rhyme style:
Here is a man darning his sock. Here is a woman spitting into a sink. Here is all of
Berlin in the creosote of coughing, sitting primly at the windowsill, looking out.

The presence of the idiosyncratic phrase "creosote of coughing" underscores these characters' lack of identity and concomitant inability to provide the comfort of close, three-dimensional people. At the end of the the same prose poem, three cliché lines appear as a possible announcement from "someone [who] will push his way through the door". One at least seems intended to comfort, but absent of context and thus meaning, neither the lines nor whoever speaks them can provide solace. In the next poem, the liquor store clerk is given instructions not to connect with the trembling customers but simply to "relax them". In "Dear Guest", there appears once again a catalog of people who cannot provide comfort; these, however, are more explicitly unknown and unknowable:
Whoever you are (winnowing in North Dakota)
whoever you are (ciphering in Denmark)
your hand will not stay with me . . .

Later, "Privacy" claims there is "[n]obody here" just a few lines before referring to "the blonde children / sleeping in the grass". Little is known about these children: what is said, beyond their physical appearance seems likely to be a projection or faded memory on the part of the speaker: they "know when to shut-up / you better."

At other times, even were they not flat, the characters in In No One's Land would not be able to provide comfort simply because of their own insensitivity. Take these figures from "Illness":
People who say, at least
I have my health.

Other people nodding.

Whatever they have dealt with, it has made them unable to consider other people's pain, a pain outside what they have known. They do not consider how that act of self-reassurance might make someone who doesn't have their health feel. The titular "Understudy" of the prose poem that follows would, perhaps, take pleasure in the illness if it struck the lead actor: it would be their chance to be looked at, to "show you something".

More generally, belonging to a crowd in and of itself cannot undo loneliness. The speaker of "Shepherding" after changing from shepherd to sheep laments that
They will call all of us in
on cold nights,
though no one calls
to me specifically.

The figures of the shepherd and flock reappear in "On the Gentle Nature of Swales". "Say lie down sweetheart. Some animals will." But not your sweetheart, not anyone whose lying down could bring a sense of connection, unless of course they lie down forever as the speaker admits to once wishing to do despite or because of the addressee's presence. Later, surrounded by men in "Cavalry Men", the speaker concludes, "I will never marry. / This gets me." Unless the woman can be intimate with one, the presence of a crowd of men only heightens her awareness of her isolation, even if this isolation may be in some degree of her own making, as the next poem, "Onenightstand" includes the statement, "I want no intimate thing; I am frightened of the intimate thing" and the piece after that, "On the Austerity of Autumn" carries the claim "I am quitting Romance".

No one's land belongs to no one: no one is there at home. "Foreplay" begins the collection in a motel room; "Afterhours" ends it with a waitress in a diner. In between, the owner of the liquor store in the second poem never appears. The title of "Dear Guest" suggests a letter, but then the writer states "I am a guest"; everyone is a guest. In "Illness', everyone but
. . . the last woman
in the bar

goes home (or perhaps to another bar).

The world they leave, however, has its charms. The very transience enforced by lack of ownership can nourish. The motel room in "Foreplay" "is the color of breastmilk, nutritive water, rinsing the palate of you". Moreover, this world of seclusion is not without its beauty. The speaker of "Nocturne IV" lines up mayonnaise jars for fireflies. These are recalled by the mason jars of "A Moment as Roscoe Holcomb", bringing an echo of their transient light and beauty into a less apparently beautiful context.

Overall, then, In No One's Land creates an effect of melancholy beauty, even if not every instance of beauty is melancholy nor every moment of melancholy beautiful. The gray blank pages that divide the collection into sections, though not following any apparent logic, slow the reader down, creating a pace that emphasizes this, and it is this that stands behind the prayer in "Application for Asylum": "I am saying God, if you are anywhere, let you be an arctic night." For this beauty, born of isolation without sequestration, one must give up "the beautiful things / that might move me", which the speaker of "The Potential of Rapture" locks up. One must go down into the dirt, up among the addicts, and find something more among them, as Ackerson-Kiely so powerfully does.


Elizabeth Kate Switaj ( has two full-length collections of poetry forthcoming: Magdalene & the Mermaids from Paper Kite Press and How to Drink a Floral Moon from Blue Lion Books. Her chapbook, The Broken Sanctuary: Nature Poems, is currently available from Ypolita Press and her echap, Shanghai (has more capital), from Gold Wake Press. She edits Crossing Rivers Into Twilight ( and serves as assistant editor for Inertia Magazine. Her professional experience includes teaching in cities throughout Japan, China, and the US as well as writing online copy for a kimono import company and conducting media research.

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