Amanda Nadelberg’s chapbook Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married emerges as a triptych across Europe investigating the types of realizations travel, romance, and geographical difference can bring about. But I found that beneath the journey, Building Castles provides a psychological exploration of the deleterious relationship loops we fall into when we lose touch with ourselves. While evoking a degree of terror to be found in the way we participate in these inimical cycles, Building Castles trims out the filler that distracts us from the romantic patterns in which we participate, beautifully exposing the misfortune that can exists when we unwittingly repeat our actions.
Before I even got a sense of the looping that the text contains and the distressing relationships Building Castles’ subject duplicates, the speaker sets a sense of foreboding in the vague and weighty diction that opens the chapbook:
It begins on a train
because she is thinking
and people take trains
to get places. Hair wild and full,
this young lady is older (1).
The speaker opens up with ambiguity: “It begins on a train.” Through the whole text, we never know what “it” is; we are on a journey with the poem’s subject, the unnamed “she,” trying to unravel what might begin on this train at the same time that the subject appears to be unthreading her own realizations about herself and her relationship. Between the subject’s present progressive “thinking” and the periodic impression of the woman being “young” and “older,” I felt a certain timelessness and tautology both in the subject and in myself. At the same time, the fact that the heavy and indefinite “it” was only beginning, I knew there was more mystery, more “thinking,” more “wild and full” exploits to come only to be revealed in the reoccurrence and replay of the subject’s experiences.
As the chapbook progressed, I saw the speaker acknowledge her future, yet repeat her behavior: “I am getting married” (1). But while she says this, she cycles through men, engaging with and leaving a painter, bidding him many mistresses, pointing out that “there are men everywhere,” and meeting a man named “two glasses please” at a wedding (2). The seeming interchangeability of men is part of the poem’s power. It draws attention to the amorphous similarities our choices and actions have when abstracted and how this similitude sets us up to repeat inimical loops unaware of our own pattern. Just as the subject parted ways with the painter, piqued, I watched her slowly grasp the decay of her liaison with the next man, “two glasses please:”
[…] He’s needed on the
telephone—would you apologize
for me—her face in the window
watching color and the wind,
all forms of disappointment (2-3).
Despite the fact that the subject is slowly repeating her own romantically injurious pattern, she stays with the man, holding onto him even though the colors and the wind around her are all tinged with “disappointment:”
such a mess in Paris, she
goes back to the country,
she will not call. She wants
a man to hold onto, she
needs only a minute.
No time he says, even for
apology. No, she didn’t get
the letter, the telephone
interrupting, I’m awfully
busy, he says to her, wait
a minute […] (4).
A great deal of Building Castles’ success stems from the ambiguity of place, space, and tense. It becomes increasingly harder to know whether the poem’s subject is dealing with her “fiancé” or with a European love affair. The uncertainty made me feel that this woman will continue to rotate through use and abuse until she can develop awareness around this pattern and break free from it; furthermore, it made me ponder where I do this in my own life. Nadelberg concludes the poem with a chilling degree of obfuscation, as the closing stanza brings us right back to the beginning:
On the train she is
happy at the window,
the colors of the country.
A wild woman, she goes
back to Le Mans, returns
to the lovely invisible street and,
like other women, makes lamps (6).
The cyclical nature of the chapbook made me feel like I was back at the first stanza. In fact, the succession made it difficult to not start the chapbook over again, and then again, and then again. For a moment I felt sucked into the cycle along with Building Castles’ subject. She loops back to the beginning, slightly different than when the chapbook opened, but her difference is one of degree, not of kind. She is happy; she is still wild; she returns to France; now, she is not travelling; she is working; she “makes lamps.” Yet in doing so, she is “like other women.” She becomes equivocal like the abstracted and interchangeable men she described. I didn’t know and couldn’t know what her fate would be, but I could see the dangers in her iterations and transpose such peril onto my own proclivity to repeat actions. As a result, all I could do is hope for this speaker to change her loop, and reciprocally, stop and examine the harmless or harmful loops in which I participate.
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Tim Etzkorn lives in Laramie, WY where he instructs at the University of Wyoming and is a M.A. candidate in literary studies. He specializes in early modern poetry, drama, and iconography.