Recommended Reading: Lena, by Cassie Pruyn

Lena, Cassie Pruyn’s debut collection, is a tender and fierce evocation of love and painful loss.

Lena was the poet’s first love; after their relationship ended, Lena was diagnosed with cancer and later died. In these poems, Ms. Pruyn offers readers both an unabashedly sensual portrait of first love and an elegy for Lena. The book is non-linear, threading together the poet’s complicated, overlapping emotions regarding Lena: affection, desire, frustration that their relationship couldn’t be lived openly, relief when it ended, grief in the face of her illness and death.

I admired this collection’s craftsmanship (particularly Ms. Pruyn’s facility with rhymes and stanza breaks), but even more so its wrenching honesty, from the innocent eroticism of “Lena’s Summer House in Rockport” (“and Lena      all skin / among scattered pillows”) to the yearning in “The House on Tator Hill” (“I didn’t belong in that house, or in any of its portraits / but we tried to make a home of its four-poster bed”), the guilt in “Dive,” and the incredulity in “Self-Interrogation.” In this poem, “Where is her body?” is repeated, a haunting refrain, in the poem’s first section, which imagines the body after death, and in the second, in which the speaker recalls the beloved’s body in life.

“Lena, No One Knew,” “Elegy for a Room,” and “Twenty Minutes at the Clam Shack,” and “In the Vineyard” (“she slants against the wind in her peacoat”) are some other favorites from this beautiful book, which I’m happy to recommend.

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“speckled / like a sky” : May Swenson’s “Blue”

A modern entry into the venerable poetic tradition of cataloging the beloved’s physical beauties (see: Petrarch, Shakespeare, Donne), May Swenson’s “Blue” is a poem that just begs to be read aloud. It’s rhythmic, sexy, and filled with bilabial consonants (‘p’ and ‘b’ in particular) that press the reader’s lips together into a kiss.

Swenson

The speaker addresses her lover in lines replete with sensory imagery — taste and touch especially — made even more immediate by the present-tense action of the poem. And you won’t believe what she can do with three colors — white, rose (also the lover’s name), and blue.

Here are my favorite lines:

You’re white in
patches, only mostly Rose,
buckskin and salty, speckled
like a sky. I love your spots,
your white neck, Rose, your hair’s
wild straw splash, silk spools
for your ears.

You can read the entire poem here.