Book Review: Caryl Pagel's "Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death"

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan said "Books are proof that humans are capable of working magic." In a world that seems to be deteriorating both environmentally and culturally, and in a world where we feel the symptoms of wanting to define ourselves, Caryl Pagel's poems in Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death speak to the impulse to make magic. Magic in the sense that, as artists, we want to create something from nothing, and we must sustain ourselves on the belief that we are capable of it. Magic in the sense that, as humans, we are drawn to believe there is a world within our own, that there are souls within our bodies, that love may be of an infinite nature.

In her poem "Archive", Pagel writes: "ours is an archival/ generation", but what do we make of information when we are given so little to collect? What happens when we hear what sounds like a voice through a wall? How do we explain levitation? What exactly is a soul and can we photograph it? What is our relationship to real bodies or imaginary bodies? It is this push and pull between our desire to make sense of things and our desire to look beyond the empirical. In "Anchor", Pagel writes "I notice not/ the mirroring of gnarled // systems underground but I have seen the/ drawings." Perhaps, like roots, the things we cannot see also sustain us.

Through Pagel's ample use of caesura, the spaces she creates in the poems invite the reader to wonder what may fill the space. As a visual artist uses negative space, Pagel also uses space in her work to create a sense of mystery for the reader. The experience is similar to reading a moth-eaten journal or ancient scroll: what is left out is sometimes the most intriguing aspect of her poetry. What remains is a kind of hybridity between what is known, what can be guessed, and what we want to know. Pagel's use of rhyme, scattered internally throughout the poems, reminds one of seeking to translate a muffled sound, words spoken underwater, or from a far corner of a forest.

Drawing on images of Victorian spirit photography, the occult, levitation, Emily Dickinson's herbarium and cryptozoology, among many others, Pagel ushers us into a world exists just beneath the surface of our own. Like Plato's ethereal world of forms, we cannot completely access it, but we are only allowed brief glances, shadows on the cave wall. Like the ocean that makes up the majority of our planet, we seek to unveil the mystery. This phenomenon may be best described in the poem "Those That are Possessed by Nightmare", a compilation of several esoteric works. In it, Pagel beautifully vivisects these words, as if borrowed from something read and something dreamt: "As creatures who thrive in the deep waters of the ocean, bodies may represent deep emotions. They may also symbolize…intuition…"

Caryl Pagel is the assistant director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, co-founder of Rescue Press, and an editor at jubilat. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death is available now from Factory Hollow Press, and at Prairie Lights Bookstore.

 

Review by Denise Behrens
Photo by Myriad Mel

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