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Review: The Skiers, by Jill Bialosky

Jill Bialosky's first publication in the UK, consists of substantial selections from her three US collections. The first of these, The End of Desire, consists mainly of pitch-perfect narratives of childhood and growing up. Bialosky moves between her own life and those of her mother and her two sisters, and gathers details of the domestic and the intimate and plaits these into poems of great emotive power. In Carousel, she recounts the events that follow when one of those drunken sisters comes home with two boys, and the narrator takes on herself:

Her spirit over me like a canopy
of the carousel's white blinking lights
I endlessly lost myself beneath.
When the music finished and the platform
of the room stilled, I couldn't stop him;
her reckless heart was mine.

Bialosky shows how the girl's lives mingle emotionally and how their teenage years reflect and refract each other's attitudes. This is often achieved through the trajectory of the narrative, but as we have seen here, Bialosky is highly adept at using metaphor to reach between the persons in the poems, between the sisters, but also between the sisters and the people with whom they interact.

In Bialosky's second book, Subterranean, the central theme is fertility, childbirth and the fragility of both. The poems are more etiolated than the poems in the first volume and those strings appear more fragile on the page. And where the poems in the first book showed churning interactions of females in a family, the second book is far more haunted and edgy. Animals manifest at the edges of the scenes, quiet and disturbing. There are disturbing humans too; mad boys and teenage couples whose giggling sets nerves on edge. Sentences often begin with 'I remember ...' and 'I wonder ...', and what is remembered or wondered about, can be uncertain and subject to slippage. The writing, too, is more lurid and resonant.

The final selection is from Bialosky's third book Intruder; another title that shows the peril that haunts Bialosky's work. The narratives turn to the third person and there's an altogether more fictive nature to the poems. There is a universalised 'she' in some of these poems that sets up figures that can resemble, for example Miss Faversham, in the poem Anniversary in which a bouquet is valiantly preserved long past its prime,

Her floor was a mess
of broken stamens and pollen.
Her sink was all petals,
where they'd bled.
There was no more life left. Not yet.
No.

Towards the end of the book is the magnificent title sequence. In unrhymed fourteeners, Bialosky plots the end of a relationship against a snowscape where a couple lose their way, literally and metaphorically against the white background. For all her concentration on woman's condition, Bialosky is also a magnificent poet of place, and her descriptions of the snowy landscape and the animals that live in are poignant, adroit and hugely affecting.

Bialosky is ultimately a poet of empathy, the need for it and the solace and power it brings.