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Jill Bialosky follows her acclaimed debut collection, The End of Desire, with this powerful sequence of poems that probes the subterranean depths of eros. Gerald Stern has called Bialosky “the poet of the secret garden, the place, at once, of grace and sadness,” and here she enters that garden again, blending the classical with the contemporary in bold considerations of desire, fertility, virginity, and childbirth. Written against the idealizations of romantic love and motherhood, she tells of the loss of one child and the birth of another, the fierce passions of life before children, the seductions of suicide, and the comforts of art. Throughout, she braids and unbraids the distinct yet often inseparable themes of motherhood, love, and sexuality. “When he comes to me,” she writes,
in his hand, wanting
me to touch him, I hear
you stir in your crib. I know what your body
The soft skin of a flower, not bruised, not yet
in torment . . .
Subterranean is the moving and intimate account of the emergence of a female psyche. Like the figures of Persephone and Demeter, who appear in various forms in these poems, Bialosky finds a strange beauty in grief, and emerges from the realms of temptation with insight and distinction.
This second collection follows 1997's well-received The End of Desire and comes bespangled with impressive encomia from the likes of Harold Bloom, Eavan Boland and Molly Peacock, praising Bialosky's voice, her "dark chill power" and the volume's "mythic underworld collage." The End of Desire touched many readers in the way that poets like Boland and Linda Pastan have, conjuring a modern-day woman trying to make empowering sense out her emotions in the face of mysterious world processes and dangerous, if desirable, others. The poems here, which alternate between long blank verse and skeins of short, dimeter tercets, follow a tried-and-true formula: a parade of natural phenomena weather, sun and moon, physical desire is sorted and measured until some perspective is achieved. The "she" of most of these poems (relieved on occasion by a fresh "I") ransacks a store of conventional emotions looking for wisdom, but finds mostly turbulence and weightlessness radiating from an "inner core" that nonetheless can crack cement and make the wind swoon. The poems work this ground with manic insistence, and, despite the fervid effort, harvest insights that are curiously banal: "The snow/ is wet/ like rain.// It will not/ stick/ or accumulate." Nonetheless, there is much here of topical interest losing one's virginity, miscarriages, first love, motherhood that will please the reader looking for candor about emotional frailty and conflicted love.