Poetry News

Bridget Talone & Other Poets Reflect on the Poems That Begin the Book

By Harriet Staff
Bridget Talone, The Soft Life, cover

At Chicago Review of Books, Sarah Blake considers the "prologue-poem," aka the first poem in a book, and asks four poetsDiana Khoi Nguyen, Bridget Talone, E. J. Koh, and Amy Saul-Zerbyfor their thoughts on the subject. "Without a prologue-poem, I find myself asking that much more of the opening poem, to cover the ground of both beginning the book and preparing me for the rest of it. And yet, I don’t want a book without surprise. I would never want an opener to give away too much," writes Blake. Talone's debut, The Soft Life (Wonder, 2018), opens with "In the Valley Made Personal," which is published here in full. Her thoughts:

“In the Valley Made Personal” is one of the oldest poems in The Soft Life. I wrote it as I was trying to come out of the feeling that I didn’t know how to write about my life. I went to graduate school a year after my father died. He’d had cancer for ten years. Losing him was shattering in many ways, but I’d somehow never considered that it would change my relationship to writing. Before, my writing had been situated within the relatively set coordinates of my life. However I found that life, it was legible to me. I felt fluent in it: tethered to the people around me and near to my experiences. That legibility disappeared with my father, and I found myself mute inside so much not-knowing, estranged from even the pain of missing him.

While the poem isn’t strictly autobiographical, its energy feels yoked to that time—a kind of building up and sputtering out, urgent and useless. It’s full of desires, and vexed by what speaking doesn’t change. Years later, I wasn’t sure if this poem belonged in the book. Maybe it was vestigial. My friend, the poet Margaret Ross, suggested that I open with it and think of it as a prologue.

Reading it as a prologue, I was able to see what preoccupations echoed across the rest of the book: an interest in address, and trying on power; bodily helplessness, sometimes struggled against and sometimes surrendered to; how these impulses arise and what language attends them. The book began to seep back into the poem. It became a record, not just of a single moment of dislocation but of how that dislocation had become folded into of my experience of writing.

Find responses from all four poets at Chicago Review of Books.