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That which is noctilucent sends self-generated light through the darkness. Night-shining clouds high in the atmosphere, for instance. Stars. A poetry collection with such a title could situate its verse nowhere but the open spaces of the universe. Much like the constellations we observe far out there, Melissa Buckheit’s Noctilucent (Shearsman Books) is in many ways shaped by what the reader perceives.
This is not to suggest that the book is directionless or obtuse. Rather, narrative, in this book, is broken up and tossed into the ether of the manuscript. We move from a lantern-lit walk toward a lover’s front door to the waters of the deepest sea. We meet lovers and family, but are more often surrounded by larger, undefined presences. These poems are not for readers who want their feet on the ground and the three unities aligned at all times.
But the fragments of life we can cling to are potent. Love and human complexity play in the “blade of grass you kicked up as we swung/high on Tower Hill” and the lover who is “secret, spoken against your ear”. Restlessness in “Nightshade” for the speaker who wants “to be lost outside this world,/Rebekah/where the color of water is a window/outside the days”. The grief is nearly palpable later, in “Empty Map of Room”: “Love that is no more, a glass of air/in the black/of dusk”. We need not have a trajectory, or a bill of players, to feel the depth of emotion in these brief lyrics.
There’s a magic here, too, that invites us in. The title poem, which opens the collection, parts layers of cyan and blue-green to arrive at “Japanese moon-/lanterns strung orange/for the night-/walk to a lover’s door preceding electric blue/lights of the city” . Who among us hasn’t imagined—or experienced, if you’re lucky—that sort of enchanted night? These poems have literary touchstones including Ammons’ “City Limits”: “the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue//bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies” (Ammons, “The City Limits” ). In these pages exist beings and locales drawn from many spaces.
Buckheit’s poetic tropes and figures merit special discussion. They are original in the truest sense of the word, and often striking. Moreover, they often form the backbone to understanding in a given poem. In “End of Summer,” the tender tribute of “you are the beautiful/lip/against my nipple//but the red cup, a raspberry/is yours” opens up the depth of love between speaker and partner. Likewise, in “Bee,” the poem’s origin in “The apiary inside me/is flush with bees” carries readers through a haze of pollen and blossoms on the search for “gold”. This degree of figurative language gives readers the best sort of surprise.
As may be evident from the title, Buckheit holds language most dear in these poems. At times, this linguistic intimacy can feel exclusionary to the reader; the Latinate diction creates a distance between reader and text that may break the moment for some. Having a look through the end-notes prior to reading the collection would likely create a more fluent read.
And yet, the effect of her high style is to create contrast with simpler, oft-used words that typically lack impact in a poem. After esoteric vocabulary such as “penumbra” and “chromatophores,” the “green ferns and day lilies over the pond” and “relief of waves against the pale, overcast sky” flash vividly before a reader’s eyes. In a sense, the collection is its own metaphor: the commonplace thrown into relief against the infinitely complex lets us be more at peace with both.
For the reader willing to gaze into the deep space of words, Noctilucent builds shapes in the imagination. Buckheit pairs earthly longings with writings of celestial delicacy to show us what we can see when we look beyond immediacy. Her collection, like the noctilucent cloud that shares its name, lingers long in the atmosphere.
By Melissa Buckheit
Paperback, 9781848612150, 80 pp.