Book Review – No Matter by Jana Prikryl

No Matter: Poems

No Matter: Poems by Jana Prikryl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started reading No Matter by Jana Prikryl not knowing at all what to expect. What I did not want was more poetry of heartbreak. I wanted poetry that worked with language not only to connect with the reader, but also to absolutely confuse them. Jana Prikryl does just this, and I cannot be more grateful for such a master of language.

I had picked this book of poetry from a selection of titles on NetGalley because of its description on the website: “Set in cities toppling past the point of decline-and-fall–Rome, London, Dublin, and most of all New York–these poems capture the experience of being human in the late days of empire, when the laws protecting weak from strong are being torn away.” As a classicist studying ancient Roman literature and myth, this seemed right up my alley.

It is true that most of these poems are set in New York – and I probably would understand them better if I knew more about New York culture and geography – but many of the poems are set against language that evokes ancient myth and history. The physical descriptions of the city also use language that hints at archaism, especially the use of “brownstone” to describe the bridges and buildings.

The theme of most of Prikryl’s poems reminds me of The Aeneid, my particular area of study – ergo my interpretation of these poems focuses mostly on that. Prikryl compares New York to Troy in her poem “Ambitious”, telling how heroes pass through and make the city his own and that of his own people (an allusion to Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy). Prikryl also features well-known characters from this epic. The character that shows up in the titles of many of the poems is the Sibyl, an oracle who helped Aeneas on his journey into the Underworld. Here she is presiding over what seems to be the change of cities and the people described in these poems. In the second-to-last poem, also called “Sibyl”, there is imagery that alludes to things, especially plants, that grow in the Underworld. Dido is another character from the Aeneid who is featured in this book, exactly twice. With her we see what could’ve happened between Aeneas and Dido if he had to redo his actions. The fact that Prikryl uses the Sibyl more than Dido as a featured voice is really interesting; it is possible that if Dido were the main voice there would be more reference to love rather than the change the Sibyl represents as the liminal figure between the Underworld and the world of the living. A symbol of change.

The way Prikryl uses language in these poems, besides the language that reference The Aeneid, is astounding. The manner in which she constructs her verses really draws the eye to what’s important. The way I feel reading it is how I imagine my own thoughts would look if they were written down on paper.

My biggest issue was understanding a lot of the poems, though I would say that is the way it is with most poetry. It is personal, and not every poem is meant for everyone (and, as I said before, I am sure New Yorkers would have a much easier time understanding). However, even if we don’t understand, I wholeheartedly recommend giving Prikryl’s verse a chance, even if just to enjoy the clever mastery of language and ancient allusions.

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