PictureCarnegie Mellon University Press. 2014. 72 pages.

Reviewed by Chelsea Wagenaar

Jasmine Bailey’s debut book of poems, Alexandria, memorializes lost place, lost love, and lost self. The poems are short and lyrical, each a beautiful thing that has been chiseled down to its essentials. The poems talk to myth and history, they travel to other countries, they return to close-by cities. The speaker in these poems has an acute sense of how her own loves play out in a larger literary and mythical scope of lovers. In “Days of Aggressive Geese” she writes, “sometimes you were Dante and sometimes / you were Beatrice.” She understands the intensely personal and painfully collective human experience of loss that makes it both her own and not at all (from “Dreaming in January”: “Nothing new in this. Nothing new ever.”)

Though the poems are infused with loss, they are not loudly elegiac or mournful, nor are they filled with tempests of regret or lamentation. The speaker in these poems has moved beyond mourning and toward wisdom and the confusion of what it is to accept loss. She wants to hold it up, look at it, understand it. The tone is wistful, contemplative, acquiescent. In the first poem, “Archipelago,” Bailey writes,

You have come into and out of my life
like a needle knitting me to the earth.
Here and not here, rising and diving.

[. . .]

Why march down to the road
and travel it? I don’t know. We must accept


The speaker is calm, balanced, poised to make some sense of how one life stitches itself into another. And though the poems are full of wisdom and luminous moments of clarity, it is the frankness of moments like “I don’t know” that makes me turn the page, want to weep. Perhaps the most authentic quality of Alexandria’s wisdom is its deep self-consciousness about the volatile nature of wisdom. In “Sometime Galatea,” the speaker says,

To wish to be beautiful is
to misunderstand
how it removes you from the world.

Then again, how not to wish for it,
even knowing that, when he turns,
it vanishes. 

As soon as the speaker has declared what a misunderstanding it is to wish to be beautiful, she qualifies herself—“then again”—recognizing that wisdom is often the ability to see things more than one way. The poet accepts few absolutes. In fact, loss may be the only absolute, and all loss is the same loss, as she writes in “Delphi”:

                       I cannot convince you
there is only one loss,
but I think you will know it.

[. . .]

And I know there’s one loss
travelling the continents
like a glamorous actress.
At each last wonder she can be seen
sipping espresso, looking at nothing.
She fools some people with her sunglasses,
always changing her name. 

The poet looks on from a vantage point that allows her to be a decipherer of Loss, to look beyond Loss’s disguise and identify her. The speaker is not hardened, but she is undeceived.

In these poems, Bailey allows imagination to be the agent that orders memory and experience. Even when negotiating loss, the imagination’s resilience insists on beauty—on making it, keeping it. The poet is, above all, besotted with beauty. And the poems turn toward imagination as a consolation—in the absence of the beloved, the imagination can be sufficient. In “Sugar Hollow,” the poet commands,

Tally the damages of our parting this way:
go to a swimming hole and take off your clothes.

Do this because I want to imagine you [. . .]

The emphasis lies on the speaker’s imaginative, rather than realized, experience of the scene. Later in the same poem she writes, “In my mind you have always just finished // a handful of berries.” The poet does not long to return to these moments, or to recreate them—to see them again is enough, to hold them up in her mind where she can look at them. In “Preparing to Leave Virginia,” she offers a reason to trust imagination above all:

Sometimes what I know is no longer true
and there’s no way to tell when

the truth changed or why an airplane
high enough can be the sound of crocuses. 

The imagination is more reliable than memory or experience, which are mutable and unknowable. By contrast, Imagination bends to the poet’s agency, as we see in “Poem After Summer.” Bailey writes, “If I created a world I would call it Virginia and every so often it would rain.”

Perhaps the desire I find most moving in these poems, though, is the desire to be both the witness of beauty and beauty itself. It’s a way of asking to be lover and beloved, the one who beholds and the one who is beheld. It’s a hope to be kept and reassembled in the beloved’s imagination as he is in hers. In “Gold Dust,” she writes,

[. . .] majesty is the independence
of things from our little striving.
I witnessed it as it ran

through my fingers:
sourceless, unattachable,

Beauty, or majesty, figures as a kind of god: a god who visits briefly, is glimpsable, but will not be kept. Rather than feeling sorrow over this, the speaker feels something like elation at being even a momentary witness of something so much larger than herself. Bailey voices this desire—to be the witness of beauty a