Review: The Nightlife by Elise Paschen (Red Hen Press, 2017)

by C. Derick Varn

Both sensual and dreamlike, Paschen’s new collection The Nightlife is both lush and slippery.  This is a mature collection, Paschen’s fourth in as many decades. This collection haunts and is about what the night hides: adulterers, abused women, artists under-appreciating their spouses and intrusion of both fantasies and nightmares on real life.

There is a tension between fantasy and reality in this collection which is complicated by Paschen’s concrete imaginary.   Paschen’s references to death and Dali hints to the reader how this tension is operating within The Nightlife and furthers the dialectical relationship to the truth Paschen is drawing upon.  One can see this directly in “The Marriage Bed” towards the end of the collection, after an epigraph from Dali, Paschen begins,

“That he painted her suspect above a rock—his wife,

asleep, naked, after biting a pomegranate, sees spit

into the ocean. That the bee, before the sting, craves the sweet

suck and sip of Venus-fruit…”

The concrete imaginary and use of ekphrasis seemingly in relation to Dali, but it quickly becomes obvious that painter is actually Dali himself but operating in a state where he is “racing past Picasso and Chagall” and that “sleeping women interrupt their spouses’ canvasses” where reality intrudes upon both the dream and the artistic vision.  These tensions work throughout the book, where fantasy and reality constantly intrude upon one another like someone being constantly awoken from dreams during an otherwise placid night.   

The reflections on the relationship between abuse, dreams, and art show up again and again. In another poem, “Small Brown Notebook,” the speaker is stalked by a man who resembles an artist in the painting by Manet, and the reader cannot tell is it is a dream or a reality that hits the nail eerily on the head. 

It is not immediately clear if these poems are meta-textual or not.  However, the collection’s characters, while shady, are often contrasted with natural world at night such as in the “Second Sight” which is about Green Beach, Vieques, or “Visitations” about the North Park Nature Preserve, or “Hedgerows,” which seems to paint an image of the Chicago suburbs at night,  where “the light is departing/ all letters illicit / Hounds keep barking / A thunder freaks / while we keep riding / Down gravelly lanes” where the familiar becomes more strange an ominous. 

This use of environmental imaginary, so clearly rooted in real places and in the poet’s greater Chicago area, become more and more dreamlike and menacing through the collection as well.  It is clear that Paschen seeks to  ‘. . . unhinged every / window . . .’ both internal and external about relationships, areas, and dreams, and the tensions contribute to the poet’s musical and carefully wrought verse.

Indeed, Paschen’s clearest contrast is between the “The Evaluated” and “Falls” where she works primarily imagistic modes.  In “The Evaluated” there is already a hint of the decline, in the final stanza, where “Rooftops swap place / The sorrow, the sails / Retrace your face / Train on the rails,” and the narrator hints at collision to come, and then when “Falls” appears in the second section, the poem is literally divided by white space, stanzas may be read together or opposing, and everything is disjointed like “spring/flood, then mud-slide” and “and strands of cotton / skitter in air” both images with different resonances but both equally about coming apart.

Tensions, contrasts, chiaroscuro, and fugue all characterized the work.  Paschen is depth, and her poetry seems simple at first, but its complexity becomes apparent in these contrasts and difficulties without becoming inaccessible.   A subtle collection that rewards multiple re-reads.

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