Sepia cover with coloured etching/ painting of a figure standing by a river. RetroClose River, Alexa Winik

Magma Poetry, 2021   £6.00

Falling into complicated grief

I love visiting aquariums, becoming absorbed in the strange, beautiful tanks of fascinating creatures slightly distorted behind thick glass. Reading Alexa Winik’s Close River, winner of Magma’s 2020 Open Pamphlet Competition, is absorbing in the same way.

Here, though, we are also watching the poet, as she tries to negotiate the uneasy world inside the tanks she has suddenly fallen into, following, it seems, the untimely death of her father.

Though not all the poems reference water, the conceit of immersion is not my own. Winik herself draws the comparison in ‘Parable of the Bobbit Worm’:

In this version, I’ve sunk us underwater: three sisters in a whalebone pew.
Around our teeming hair hovers wreckage of a little world.

And later, in ‘Rusalka, to her therapist’:

I told my mother, It feels like I’m looking
at a house with two lights on, but from underwater.
There was also pruned skin. A taste for gossamer,
smaller fish. Improbable glossolalia, even.

The reference to glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is important. Many of the poems describe the struggle to find the right language or the apt metaphor to describe complicated feeling. In the second poem, ‘And then we saw . . . (!)’, ‘anxious attachments to loss’ are ‘diagnosed’ as ‘anxious attachments to language.’ The anxiety of both attachments seem to dissipate as the collection progresses.

Alexa Winik confidently mixes philosophy, religion, myth, close observation of the natural world, and even a video game (in ‘Multiplayer Sonnet for Lara Croft’) to show the transformation of the poet’s world view. The struggle against the hierarchical religion the father seems, partly, to represent evolves into a more fluid understanding, hinted at in the final poem, ‘Portage’:

I’m watching a smallmouth bass chase
Particles of insect & light.
If this is the eschatology I’ve waited for,
Let me defer only to water –
What moves us, forces us on from limit
To next limit.

I feel I’ve only scratched the surface on this first visit. There is much more to discover in Close River.

Heidi Beck