When I heard Allison Seay read from To See the Queen a few months ago, she said that we were so kind for coming, for listening to her work. It’s a pretty ordinary thing to say, but the way she said it was startling. She really meant it. In the world of Allison Seay’s poetry, I learned, kindness cannot be taken for granted. “God // is abusive,” declares the first poem. God is a figment who appears alongside and within “the sadness” that surrounds the speaker. God isn’t the only figment. Liliana, the queen, is an almost constant force in the poems, but she evolves as the speaker moves through the landscape of her psychological crisis. The queen enters as a sinister personification of the sadness, but she turns, as a real companion through a trauma might, offering solace and relief from loneliness.
The worst part of seeing figments
is not seeing them.
My life is not so hard except for that—alone
in a world which moves around me as a silent film, or is
too far away to touch, or is as a fantasy. I am as distant
to myself as someone I read about
which is to say the worst part
of knowing I exist is not knowing
whether I am or am not a figment.
That’s a terrifying doubt. These figments aren’t just vessels or witnesses. Liliana shapes the speakers world, whether she “burie[s]—shoveling the dark— / whatever it was I wanted to know” or she “paint[s] my sadness with a flue-black streak.” The quiet but palpable fear that runs through Seay’s book makes any small kindness, any beauty or relief, seem luminous, almost overwhelming. Limits, therefore, are important for these poems. The three sections of the book map houses, then towns, then rooms—places that can be filled with illness, memory, or loss.
Seay calls her towns the “Geography of God’s Undoing,” a section title that suggests and inverts Eden. It is not the lovers, here, who are undone. It is God. The towns revolve around intimacy and its loss, but they mourn something bigger:
I never understand how to figure
one routine then another then another
accreted over time continuous
until it is life itself
in other words the beauty
This poem’s town is the “Town of Longing.” It’s not a longing for childhood, or for the beloved, or for God, though all of those subjects appear in Seay’s poems. It’s a longing for the slow, steady bloom of normalcy. The uncontrolled slip of distance and time haunts Seay’s towns. When those forces pause in “Before the War,” the final poem in “Geography of God’s Undoing,” Seay’s ferocious imagery and command of form function like punctuation, closing the towns and opening into another space.
It was the one season we were closing in
on a form of God; we felt something of the Seraph’s burn
and well before we knew the ways we would hate and turn
on one another—sharp, elapsed as choking.
I want what I wanted then: the image of us tethered and fixed,
so permanent may every woman’s tiny bow lips
or delicate neck be mine. Her arm, mine, her back in arch,
mine, mine, her sudden flush, her hand, my clutch.
Seay moves from here into rooms the queen might visit. She emerges from cracking paint, a small, ordinary fissure that might go unnoticed until a great trauma, illness, or loss brings a figment to the surface of the world. In these final rooms, Liliana is a gentler guest, painting, cleaning, performing the tasks the speaker cannot yet undertake. The same regret appears in these poems, in which Seay revisits childhood losses, but it is tempered with a sense that other people are joining Liliana and the speaker in their rooms. And then, at last, the queen retreats. It is not an easy, clean leaving, but neither is the recovery from illness. Seay’s lyrically gorgeous exploration of a crisis does justice to the nuances of the psyche, to doubt as well as joy. The mercy that the speaker, through Liliana, finds for herself, is one of the bravest and most memorable kindnesses I can imagine.
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Victoria Kornick is pursuing her MFA at New York University, where she is a Rona Jaffe Fellow.