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Acquainted with the Cold

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Two strangers meet at a bar in the dead of winter: We can’t stop/erasing the ghost between our bodies, leaving//our mouths’ lost words all over/one another, whoever we are. Taken from the poem, “Mysterious Origin,” these lines invite us to explore the multiple facets of identity in Lexa Hillyer’s debut collection. Winner of the 2011 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize, Acquainted with the Cold thrusts us into a world of haunting images where layers of the self unfold alongside the frigid landscape of winter.

If an ars poetica explores the craft of a poem, then Hillyer’s collection can be likened to an ars poetica of the self—in it, we find entrancing metaphors that explore how we shed layers of the past. Hillyer’s poem, “From this Side of the Water,” compares the speaker’s former self to a “frozen body” that gets left behind:

Reflective waves amid rough silver firs
trap my girl, my ghost…

I take a sharp breath, memorize the trees,
their ice-tip certainties. Then begin

to climb the slope away from her frozen body,
those pale arms wrapped in reeds.

Winter and speaker become one in this collection. This is not a series of nature poems where the observer merely documents what she sees; rather, the natural landscape embodies the human condition, mirroring the loss, regret, and potential that we store in our spirits.

As Hillyer writes, What is the difference between me/and that crystal-covered fir tree?//We’re both reeling toward darkness,/free-floating through stars’ spilt milk. There’s something dreary and abysmal about these images, but wait for the turnaround: They say/all energy moves toward chaos. Excerpted from the poem, “Ultimate Coast,” we sense the power of stillness, for it is the precursor to transformation. Beneath winter’s icy grasp, changes are on the brink of happening. Rebirth, of both landscape and self, are held in suspense, and we cannot help but sense the “agency, urgency.”

Acquainted with the Cold rattles with vivid imagery. Hillyer’s collection will immerse you in a landscape of “mud, memory, mountain,” where dead layers of the past are waiting to be shed, and we anticipate the catapult into change. Hillyer gives a nod to a season with its own kind of energy. This is what happens beneath blankets of snow where no one can see. Here, the poet does a fine job of drawing our attention to the tense energy that lies beneath a deceptively dormant time    —Joanne Mallarai


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