In No One’s Land
Winner of the 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
In No One’s Land stakes a claim on wilderness and, most assuredly, manages to homestead there. These are not the poems born of quiet contemplation; they are edgy and lurid, painfully administering to the world of convenience stores, diners, one-night stands. “I locked up all of the beautiful things that might move me,” says Paige Ackerson-Kiely, daring to pick at the raw skin of being and to call it beauty.
“I am saying ‘God, if you are anywhere, let you be an arctic night.’ From the starkness of glaciers to the empty refrigerator, these poems rise from the most barren landscapes and manage to make of them fabled islands, joyful joyful things.” —D.A. Powell, judge of the 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
“It is a rare and welcome thing to encounter a collection which possesses such authority, such an unassuming combination of inevitability and strangeness. It is rarer still to find these qualities in a first book. Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s haunted and compelling poems are terse but expansive, and fierce in their disdain of posturing or trivia. In No One’s Land introduces us to a poet of genuine originality—and immense talent.” —David Wojahn
“The poems of this collection show remarkable range—they are at once clean and headlong; driven by music (‘Deer at the roadside, deer in the meadow, / tall grass, headlight. Broken, bro. ken…’); and driven by imaginative narrative gesture (‘It is late and the waitress is shining cutlery, folding cloth squares into neat little tents a boy who is small for his age might imagine sleeping under.’). We are surprised as we continue reading. As we should be. In this book, we find straightforward syntax and syntax slightly skewed—and the poems are, whether spare or thick on the page, clear, accessible, realized. Paige Ackerson-Kiely has written a wonderfully cohesive and exciting collection—exciting for its reach and mature and masterful handling of material—and exciting, too, for its promise of what will come.” —Martha Rhodes
You are sitting on the bed. The motel room is the color of breastmilk, nutritive water rinsing the palate
of you. The sheets are not soft reminders of human capacity for forgiveness with their random tufts like
a father roughing up his boy’s hair; son you’ve made me proud. There are times when an absence of
pride means the lion is eating his cub. The lioness under some reeds growling like an unwound basket.
Unthreading stalks like tight stitches in all the wounds you don’t mean to make, then abandon,
embarrassed. Here is a man darning his sock. Here is a woman spitting into a sink. Here is all of Berlin
in the creosote of the coughing, sitting primly at the windowsill, looking out. You lean back on the bed
which is like curling into a giant yawn; pretty, ambivalent shrug. Any minute now someone will push
his way through the door and announce something. Dinner is served. The surgery was a great success.
I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ll have to come with me. Answer a few questions.
Copyright © 2007 by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
“In ‘Foreplay,’ the opening poem of In No One’s Land, Paige Ackerson-Kiely wryly notes, ‘There are times when an absence of pride means the lion is eating his cub.’ Unflinching and steel-eyed, this hallmark Ackerson-Kiely moment abruptly enters the reader into a hard-surfaced land of diners and liquor stores where, in landscapes of the arctic north and the edge of wilderness, the urban has neither taken over nor entirely stopped trying . . . . These poems are rooted in the earth and in the animal world, impressively aware of the soil and convenience stores and atmospheric pressure of existence. To read In No One’s Land is to look into a beautiful and disconcerting reflective surface and to find that the image there is too alien to be ourselves, and too familiar not to be. The effect is as mesmerizing as it is disconcerting. We hear and see these poems, they touch us and inhabit us, before they begin to work on the intellect. In No One’s Land is a highly sensual collection and also the keenly observed reflections of a quasi-hermetic figure who knows ‘I will build the home I will die in / the home I will build.’ It is one of the best debut collections of this decade, and it has the temerity and quietness to end, in the afterhours of a diner, with a gratitude that resists our notions of what gratitude is: ‘The desserts offered are too beautiful. No, nothing else // thank-you.’” —from the review by Lytton Smith in Verse Online [read the entire review here].
“These are poems of gravity and some sort of omniscience. The narrator knows the boundaries, passions, and intentions of her characters as if better than they do, and has little doubt as to how the poetry will react. What’s most refreshing is that there is little abstraction and self-conscious irony in the language, but still the opportunity for the mind to fill in its share of blanks. We don’t have to learn to read these poems, but we have no choice but to react to them. Most lines are declarative and, though often neurotically considerate, the voice employed can be chastising and stark. In ‘Instructional Lecture for a Liquor Store Clerk,’ Ackerson-Kiely brings across the immediacy of not only the poem, but of the entire collection:
The customers want something from you that you do not own but in fact lord over. Let the older men call you baby or hon, it relaxes them. See how they tremble, hands like a wet fawn one hour old pushing up to stand. It will be a hard winter and the fawn won’t make it. Mostly it is bleak.
“It’s this sense of awareness she holds over the poems that keeps us willing to find out and discover. What else does she know? The poems seem to understand too well their surroundings and apologize for that fact only by exploring some more. It’s as if they are telling the reader, See? It’s not that bad. We all do it; it happens to everyone. The odd stability on the part of the narrator, even when the circumstances should elicit trepidation or some morose eeriness, is compulsive and pure.” —from the review by DJ Dolack in Octopus.
“The menace of potential violence is never far from the surface of these poems, but that is hardly their only emotional register. Ackerson-Kiely can be playful, wistful and melodic: ‘One by one mason jars are filled; / my beet-struck heart vinegared,’ she writes in ‘A Moment as Roscoe Holcomb,’ in tribute to the old-time banjo player. Likewise, in ‘An Old Recording,’ rustling newspapers are ‘like I love you whispered / over and over until / the awkward place which is neither / the ear or the throat itches terribly / and cannot be found with a finger.’
“The unscratchable itch lives, like many of the objects of desire Ackerson-Kiely summons, somewhere between the imagination and the viscera. To say that her poetic subject is inwardness would be understatement; to call it confessional would miss the point. It follows a trajectory from the personal to the private, the private to the hidden, the hidden to the unsayable.
“In No One’s Land is a personal archaeology of loss, one inscribed in the flesh like faded bruises and improperly set bones. Ackerson-Kiely’s high lonesome verses pose unformable questions and answer them in the only way possible: crab-wise and tentatively.” —from Matt Frassica’s review in Seven Days.
“Ackerson-Kiely, winner of the 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, delivers to the reader an attitude translated by smaller journeys and moments, implying a past worth more than the telling, a past worth living both through and beyond. Sometimes this is demonstrated in a line as simple as ‘it is true I am afraid of the stranger in men,’ from her poem ‘To the Understudy'; at other times the sentiment is more complex, riddled into the precious by her use of imagery to create a second world within the poem, as in ‘Foucault’s Bed’: ‘The bed is where you work, castigated, is not like / two mares staring down the girder of their noses. . . . Crawl or jump in, death just makes the other saddest. Woe. Like / what you would say to horses if you ever wanted them to stop.’” —from J. Noel Trapp’s review in ForeWord.
“[Ackerson-Kiely], in other words, is making not a dramatic script for performance but in a way a specification, a scenario, a kind of forestory whose force comes from the inflection it gives to the imagination after it finishes with the work itself. This is the kind of poem that is difficult to end, one wishes with this kind of poem sometimes that there was some kind of musical track that could slowly swell and drown out the speaking voice, but I think Paige’s ‘solution’ — to give a kind of sentience to the rust itself, to complete the population of this world, is pure skill.
“In the end the cliché of the New York Times Book Review — that this or that inanimate object (‘New York!’ ‘Ambition!’ ‘The Fashion Line of Gianni Versace!’) has become a character itself is indeed brought overabundantly to the reader in Paige’s text. D.A. Powells’ blurb on the back describes Paige’s work as ‘joyful’ (actually, since this is a blurb, he describes it as ‘joyful joyful’) — I think better a way to describe this poem is as triumphant, with the sensation of a poetic mistress leaning down over a world and inbreathing a strange kind of life.
“P.S.: if you are wondering who Roscoe Holcomb is, we have wikipedia: Roscoe Holcomb (1911-1981) was an American singer, banjo player, and guitarist from Daisy, Kentucky. A prominent figure in Appalachian folk music, Holcomb was the inspiration for John Cohen’s coining of the term ‘high, lonesome sound.’” —from Simon DeDeo’s review of “A Day as Roscoe Holcomb,” from In No One’s Land.
I was born in Biddeford, Maine, at the behest of my parents in October of 1975. I grew up on the coast and also in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, which boasts one of the largest congregations of bikers each June.
I rambled around a bit in my early twenties, attended Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin; Marmara University in Istanbul; Birzeit University in Birzeit, Palestine; and finally received a BA in Asian Studies from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I thought I was on track to study Asylum Law, but was reorganized by youthful pregnancy and the thrum of filial responsibility. I began to write poetry when my babies were, well, babies as a way to amass privacy and some sense of independence from my role as the go-to.
In terms of professional experience I have little to show, but am looking to garner some. I tend to find comfortable, social jobs that are flexible enough to accommodate writing and my young family. I find manual labor soothing and am not above much provided it pays the bills and does not encumber the mind uselessly. Oh, and people must be kind. At present I sell wine to make ends meet and am the Writer-in-Residence for the Willowell Foundation, a local non-profit. I have also been involved with the New England Young Writers Conference at the Breadloaf Campus. Additionally, I was recently hired as a co-editor for a new poetry journal, Handsome, published by Black Ocean Press. This year I plan to use my free time to learn to skijor with my kids and our sled dog, to play Skip James pieces on the Naay, and to assist my husband, Christopher, in developing a system for prescribing literature to clients in his acupuncture practice, based on their ailment and treatment trajectory.
I am currently working on a second book of poems, loosely based on the writing of Epicurus, tentatively titled The One-Life Theory, and a novel about infanticide.
Perhaps because I am a beginner, a student, a perpetual and oft-failed seeker of humility and quandary, I find it difficult to discuss In No One’s Land or my work in general in any way that isn’t prefaced with: “I might have had a nebulous feeling about something, I don’t know what—I remember it was small and fleeting—at one time or another, but that, my friend, I cannot say with any certainty.” I can talk a little about the birth of the book, whence it came, the months surrounding its genesis, and maybe it will, in all of its off-handedness and fear of commitment, offer a little perspective on the actual work.
To say there was a dearth of poetry in my adolescent landscape would be an understatement. I lived with a quirky, loving family as much as I lived with a pretext of ill-begotten suburban platitudes, and what I knew of poetry I knew through my own lens of individuation. Early attempts at writing were anonymous letters relegated to paramours through inter-campus mail. They were thrilling to compose, and left me feeling fully independent of their subject—desire, and the body, worship and godliness, and I will say that when I began writing poetry in earnest, about 5 years ago, the thrill of that independence returned.
When I began In No One’s Land, I was immersed in the writing of Edith Sodergran, Henrik Nordbrandt, Tomas Tranströmer—and lesser known 19th and early 20th century Finnish-Swedish poets. The title In No One’s Land owes a debt to Bertel Gripenberg, who penned the line i intet land, hos ingen vill jag stanna, which translates to "In no one’s land, with no one I will stay." I was completely undone by this line, to the point of having it tattooed on my shoulder—it became for me a trajectory of sorts, a way for me to make an angle out of my work, to create it, to also abandon it—to love other things I helped to create, my home, my children—it allowed me to eat the food and drink the wine—it taught me to lie appropriately—it helped me envision the future and partake in the ruin—it made me a better kisser—it lent me a couple of dollars when I needed a cup of coffee—anyway, it created a presence, headlong into the book.
David McDuff in his book Ice Around Our Lips described other work of Gripenberg’s era as “the elaboration of an austerely beautiful nature poetry in which man is portrayed as a lonely, alien guest awaiting reabsorption into a cosmic night.” Although I would never embolden my own verse in such a lofty and lovely description, I cannot help but feel that there is some relationship there—if only because I clutched at it so unbecomingly—to create with words that threshold, that wait, that laborious and lonely wait one waits until the very last finger releases the side of the cliff, and one is free, completely and finally free of the cliff.
Admittedly I am uncomfortable with worship in all of its various incarnations yet I struggle with keeping desire at bay, as desire feels like a less informed version of worship. Because I am a human being and an unenlightened human being at that, I cannot will desire away, but it felt to me during the birthing of the book that entering into creation, a la poem-making, well, it just felt like creating the object was an act of individuating from the object, whereas worshiping or desiring an object, at least where I am concerned, subjugates. It has almost totally perverted me.
I hope this doesn’t cause readers to view In No One’s Land as another first book eager to weigh-in as evidence of ‘the human experience’, but here I am again, disguising desire as its prudent sister hope, what a headache! If you felt so inclined, you could read the book as a retrospective love-letter. You are beautiful, and I don’t need you. That should take some pressure off us both.