from ‘The Lake’ by Natalie Eilbert

— Andrew Sargus Klein

As a reader, I hope I never lose the sense of wonder that comes from watching worlds unfold from just a few scant lines and breaks swallowed by negative space. There’s a special, charged energy when I read a poem. My expectations (as much as I try to downplay them) are calibrated around an amorphous space of abstraction and observation, of craft and purpose.

Maybe this is why long poems are so very special to me as a reader and a writer. The ability to stay within that space, to push the edges of where a poem wants to go and what it wants to say, for pages and pages is a wonder to me.

Natalie Eilbert has a long poem up at Bennington Review that’s an excerpt from an even longer poem titled ‘The Lake.’ She’s able to take multiple timelines (ecological, personal, mythical) and build a space for them all to coexist and build off one another.

[…]—When a great land mammal sinks from
land, it isn’t the past we care about—It is never present—I was
born with eyes open—The biomedical tools that delivered me
in nineteen-eighty-six make up an underwater landfill—Everything made
gets discarded—Seltzer requires cold for a reason, think
gas, think—My nephew’s eyes are gray—Each time he blinks, they darken—

The stakes are high throughout this poem—so high that we’re talking about the end of the world, the end of technology, the end of relationships.

[…] We have the equivalent of a hovering car in our hand, I
explain—I am sexy when I say this—I ooze a sexuality that bends our
normal equator line—Everything is bleached—Calamity as we see it
occurs without us watching—It does not give us the dignity—Marine
life fails without an audience—It will be the disappearance of marine life
that will conclude this planet—We have confused the direction of
catastrophe—We fail the water—The technology of everyday selfhood
does not capture the gradual collapse—Illustration of nautilus with
shastasaurus or the pathogen-fighting seagrass they fear already gone—

As you can see, Eilbert uses em dashes in place of any terminal punctuation, and doesn’t include spaces on either side of them. If you had told me this prior to reading the poem I’d have thought the effect would be muddled and/or stilted, but it’s not. Not at all. The text moves easily, confidently, and ominously through its sections. Take too long a breath and you’ll take lines like this straight to the chin:

See if I am thirsty I can get up and walk to the spigot—A man
pardons the expression before saying the word fag—My eggs
poached perfect in the hungover air—I let a video run on under-
appreciated marine organisms and am shocked by the crunch
of a fish biting into corral—NoDAPL until the memes end—

And this:

[…] The heat in the air today was like history
as a sum total weight on skin—I do not have faith in any
of it but I exercise anyway—I schedule dinners over Google
and hope for reconciliation—Did you know that ladybugs
secrete their own blood when they panic—Yellow streaks
I once thought were oil—What is blood but an issuing
of panic anyway—It is raining here and sunny on the pier—

I don’t know what this poem looks like as a dozen or so small pieces. The condemnation, the anger, the questioning throughout this excerpt would likely implode under the weight of negative spaces. I can’t wait to keep reading this poem. In fact I hope it never ends, because once this poem pulls you in, its rhythm and direction and power are such that its conclusion would feel like a failing, or a falling, not an ending but an end.

Bennington Review