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Review: The Skiers, by Jill Bialosky

Jill Bialosky's The Skiers, a selection of her work to date, is confessional where Greenfield is experimental. For Bialosky, the snow as opposed to the tendril becomes the central metaphor of dissolution from the natural world. Often taking her childhood as her subject, Bialosky's poems seep backwards in time and sympathies, seeking out moments in the corruption of nature, both her own and that of those around her.

In the introductory poem Fathers in the Snow, she narrates her father's death and the undisclosed love that went all through the house / untamed and sometimes violent. The gravity of her feelings and that of her sisters become snared in the domestic reaches of their environment, the voice of my father / trapped inside the chute. Their mother's grief or lack of it becomes the chipped sunlight through the shutters. But it is the vexing snow, its desperate impermanence, contorted by their young hands from its image of purity to its propensity for forgetting that makes the poem. My sisters and I were outdoors, she writes, building fathers out of snow. By the end of the poem, with its soft recollection of the element in its final word, Even my hands forgot you.

The fate of her youngest sister and the effects of these events feature in a number of the poems, her sibling's innocence mangled with a perception of nature as corruptive. I had no power, Bialosky writes in My mother was a lover of flowers, to stop nature from murdering beauty. In Sisters, she recognises the dark at the end of the forest sweating in your dreams, and the new horrors / that arise at night, for parents quarrelling, and for answers I can't give you.

The destructiveness detailed in Bialosky's poems and her concern with an inability to act against it frequently recurs as sexual freedom that ultimately demoralises. In The Ruined Secret, her sister's affair with an ex-con when she was seventeen titillates the girls at the time, the smell of danger and lust / was everywhere, but lives on in their shared bedroom as soft darkness. In a later poem, Shadow life, from her 2001 collection Subterranean, Bialosky's spare remembrances bring back the night she shared her bed with a boy / who later / went mad. In Virgin Snow, she recalls

the scratch
of his rough jeans on my thighs,
the parting, swift as an axe.

Reading across the collections of Bialosky's poems, the echoing of subject and image becomes intriguing and suffocating as recurring memories. Little wonder that her more mature work meditates on the Persephone myth, its graphic seeds of corruption and knowledge, its perpetuation of a season that the poet, too, cannot escape, and its glance back that is both snare and compulsion. The colour red, its bluntness and daring, features throughout her writing, her red jacket lost, the red flush on her face, her polished nails...leave their red marks, the snow fallen over a red glove, the red, poisonous berries, Or the terror / of loss itself? Brutal hands, a slash of red, and so on. Colours of starkness as in a dream, her poems unable to escape their gaze on the past as she reaches into their subterranean depths. The natural world also warps into something swindling and ensnaring. In The Circles, the Rings, she conjures trees / whose leaves were long ravished and winded, birds that shriek and clamour, and the double-edged possibilities, of the sky's dangerous transformations. In The Fall,

Even the moon, changed forever, was abducted into darkness.

The wind, like a slap in one long swoop, stripped
the trees naked.

Bialosky's work derives its strength from her obsessive disquietude about her past, her inability to escape it, and its ceaseless consequences. As such, it lends itself to a selected edition as the collections together amount to more than the sum of each individually. In The Poet Contemplates her Calling, the author acknowledges her need

to travel further,
to seek more, forgetting she could never turn back...
to ponder what she had left behind.

Occasionally the iterations yield lines startling in their effect, such as the image of a doomed love like a city underneath the earth / that had failed to fully prosper. Other poems founder in their attempts to drag her memories intact into poetic form. But one senses that Bialosky is aware of the perils of her endeavour and its hit-and-miss complexion. She grants to her memories as to her chief emblem, the snow, the inconstancy of its presence. The snow reminds me, she says,

there is another world I have forgotten because I always forget
how much I love the snow.