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the daily review, mon., aug. 16

Triny Finlay

As the somewhat awkwardly instructive title proposes, Triny Finlay's second collection of poetry, Histories Haunt Us, intends to unpack past events in order to comprehend their impact on the present. Finlay's method is delicate, elliptical. The book's first section, New Astronomers, opens with a series of five poems examining loss in the context of the speaker's fragile psychological state: "pills and group and pills and group and pills" ( Abstract Loss, 4).

The title, Abstract Loss, offers a revealing play on words. The loss explored is abstract in the sense that it is indefinable, not based on a specific, given source (the kind of sense of loss associated with endogenous depression). And, given the poems' intensity and concision, the series can also be seen as an abstract, a summary of loss; loss distilled. Included also in this first section are a number of intriguing self-portrait poems: Self-Portrait as the Spanish Civil War, Self-Portrait as Someone You Might Like to Meet. Self-Portrait as Cannonball suggests a perhaps wry image of solidity to counter the brittle self evoked in other poems: "Sits in Officer's Square/ lodged in that great black throat/ so cold and guttural."

The second half of the book, Histories That Haunt Us, is made up of a long poem in 26 sections (A-Z, each beginning with the next letter of the alphabet). This series also circles loss, though more narrative is blended into the mix. Finlay also effectively interweaves into the poems quotes from other writers: Eliot, Dickinson, Emerson, Baudelaire and many more. It's an approach to intertexuality that is much more integrated and thus less self-conscious than that demanded by the fashionable glosa form, which also includes quotation, but in a much more structured manner.

These poems have a gracefully fluid line; the ghazal-like couplet form in which they're written seems well suited to Finlay's associative style. While readers will be tempted to read a consecutive narrative in this series - the speaker falls in love, the lover is unfaithful, she gives birth to a son, the son undergoes an illness - Finlay is at times inattentive to providing narrative clues to assist such a reading. The instability of her pronouns is one difficulty. In xiii, for example, the son is "he" in the second stanza, "you" two stanzas down.

Perhaps this change is meant to signal the baby's entrance into the world, but given the oblique tendencies of Finlay's language, such shifts can confound. The indirectness can begin to feel evasive, given the sensitivity of the subject matter and the powerful emotional content with which the poems engage. When Finlay allows her language to be more grounded, her insights are more effectively deployed: "Take the farmers in Eritrea, suicidal from the drought/ and I only know them because of my cab driver" (xx); "The truth is that I fell too, feel as helpless as the trees/ and I won't disguise it anymore in metaphor."

Undisguised, her poetry takes on a powerful authenticity.

Rhea Tregebov is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently (alive): Selected and New Poems. Her first novel, The Knife Sharpener's Bell, was published in 2009.