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Review: The Skiers, by Jill Bialosky

'It's all possible'

Jill Bialosky has published three collections of poems so far, all in the USA. This Selected draws together work from all of them, and is therefore a useful and accessible introduction for UK readers. She has also published a couple of novels. The back cover attests her popularity with reviewers, and the Biographical Note indicates the prestige she has gained as a finalist in both the James Loughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and in the 2009 Paterson Poetry Prize. She works as an editor for that bastion of critical propriety, W W Norton and Co., and she lives in New York.

Bialosky uses a great many more words []; whether she has more to say is another matter. Her style is as accessible and as direct, but she is much more discursive, and there is often little sense of a discipline that can give impact. But though there is this looseness that rather drains away the power, there is a nicely disturbing candour about her writing. The problem is that the poems don't quite sustain the significance that the descriptions suggest; too many of the poems can seem like a succession of unmediated observations and a kind of lushness of description. Those poems that are disciplined by more formal poetic arrangements generally work better.

Despite these cavils, she can on occasion weave her words with surprising effect: the disarmingly structured The day the world stopped, for instance, which seems like simply a laconic meditation on the sounds and silences of a suburban summer Saturday afternoon, depends on two lines: the first - and the last. If you don't read carefully, you'd be distracted from the poignancy of it by all the piled-up details - which in this case are very much part of the plan and are in fact just what make the poem work.

In search of the sublime is a fine poem about a high-wire act, carefully handled, moving from the first puzzled query How did she have the courage night after night to extend herself... to the tawdry reality - the caked-on make-up and ripped stockings - of her situation, with her smile's gesture of despair - and the memorable final query why hadn't I noticed before? as she makes her last bow. The Runaway shows her at her neatest; and she can often strike very precisely: it is the navy-blue light of a suburban evening when all myths are born she writes, in the sequence 'Intimacies: portrait of an artist'. My mother was a lover of flowers is a poem of great complexity, deftly handled. The trouble is there's not enough of this close, careful writing.

What hold Bialosky's poems together are the delicate hints, the asides almost - these, and her strong and authoritative narrative voice. She uses a range of detail and reference to deal with the basic human experiences - most often the complex nature of love, the development of relationships, the attitudes and significances that are the raw materials of the young girl growing up in twenty-first century America. Love, lust, anger, cruelty stir under the surface of these confidential accounts of adolescent angst. She writes with great affection, and entertainingly, about her family; her parents and - particularly - her sisters, whose moves from childhood to womanhood supply the material for many of the poems.

In the last analysis, it's hard not to find The Skiers a bit solipsistic, and bit claustrophobic, a bit over-endowed with a kind of self-conscious significance that somehow the subject-matter doesn't really warrant. There's more of a novelist, perhaps, than a poet here.