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

everything. 

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 ord