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A relatively recent undergrad of mine at Sarah Lawrence, Stacy Gnall just had her first book, Heart First Into The Forest, accepted for publication by Alice James Books. Even as a sophomore in college, Gnall impressed me with her razor-sharp diction and imagery that tingled my senses. Her poems are wild, precise, explosive, grounded, surprising, utilizing language boiled down to a crackle.
Look at these lines from her poem, The Insecticide In Him. In this excerpt an adolescent, female speaker is describing a slightly older, adolescent brother.
He clacks his gum, his tongue a pin in a pink balloon.
With his hands, he pulls a firefly from the marmalade jar, its thorax,
a pulse of magic and flint blaring Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! in his knuckle.
In this light, he looks more like an x-ray of himself than a boy.
The brother’s tongue, normally something soft and fleshy, is depicted in opposite terms: sharp, piercing, liable to pop something. The first place our mind goes with the metaphor is the image of a tongue deflating a chewing-gum bubble from the inside by making a little jab-like motion. A second place our mind might go is the image of a sharp tongue inside the boy’s own pink, balloon-like mouth. A third, more ominous, mental destination is the idea of the boy’s pin-like tongue lashing out of his mouth and popping someone else’s pink balloon.
The subsequent lines move back and forth between tactile descriptions and figurative images, both rendered vividly. I love how Gnall’s poems move between physical reality and the speaker’s transformative imagination. No matter how wild her imagery gets–Gnall does play the reader senes like a violin–she never gets too far from the physical world. If we were to map Gnall’s lineage, we’d probably find a tributary meandering from Eastern Europe. Certainly Gnall has had a few sips from the fountain of surrealism. But there’s also an awareness of fairy tales in her poems, a knowledge of how the forest is a place away from the village, where magic and danger and innocence come together.
Perhaps I should mention that this particular poem is one that Gnall began as an undergrad (she graduated in 2005, subsequently received an MFA from University of Alabama, and is now working towards a PhD at USC). What really impresses me is how Gnall has continued to work on the poem over the years, a testament to her diligence and relentless imagination.