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Deryn Rees-Jones
Publication Date: 
Monday, June 3, 2019
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Shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2020

Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2019

"Rees-Jones moves between prose and poetry as if to test language in the act of transfiguration. Her imagination interpolates the personal body in the political and natural worlds with deep sensuousness, a muscular intelligence." - Sandeep Parmar

"Rees-Jones provides a means – a subjective register – for hearing what ‘circumstances of sound electrifies the heath, / open up the dark.’ With admirable exactness she charts the existential bewilderment that frustrated Freud, his narrow paradigms lacking the dimensionality of these unflinching poems." - PN Review

Named after the Greek muse of lyric poetry, Erato combines documentary-style prose narratives with the passionate lyric poetry for which Rees-Jones is renowned. Here, however, as she experiments with form, particularly the sonnet, Rees-Jones asks questions about the value of the poet and poetry itself. What is the difference, she asks in one poem, between a sigh and a song? Erato’s themes are manifold but particularly focus on personal loss, desire and recovery, in the context of a world in which wars and displacement of people has become a terrifying norm. 

In the narrative of transformations that unfold, the invocation of Erato also carries with it a sense of errata and erasure.  As stories and ideas are repeated, and recurring imagery -- of fires, bees, birds – is continually reframed, we are asked to replay, rethink, rename. How do we step out from the ‘perpetual loop’ of trauma? And how do we find a way of processing painful change? Here, bewilderment in the face of ongoing historical tragedy is countered by the Rees-Jones’s close and careful attention to immediate or remembered experience, and the importance of the body, whether this is lying awake at night with a sleepless child, the felling of a backyard tree, walking in Paris observing the encampments of refugees, or the dreamlike conversation she has with the radio about bombs and the use of drones.  

Erato includes elegies for family members and close friends, including an impressive and moving long poem ‘I.M.’. Also included here is the autobiographical ‘Caprice’ in which Rees-Jones explores with musical abandon ‘the scribble-mess’ of self, and the ‘grainy, atomized emotion coursing through in middle age’.

Throughout Erato there is a compelling sense of continued curiosity, of thoughtful questioning, of questing for truths.  The author’s background in the classics, her immersion in modern poetry as well as a deep interest in modern art, all combine to influence the essential quality of this work. 

"Here is the poet as rhapsode, an open channel for giddily overlapping streams of grief, desire, bewilderment, awe and rage." – Josh Cohen

"Deryn Rees-Jones shows us that in the right hands lyric is the sharpest, subtlest and most devastating instrument we possess." – Sasha Dugdale

"...a forcefield book, a fierce and beautiful thing." - Vona Groarke


Review by Kate Noakes, The North 64

Monday, August 24, 2020

With a large element of prose as well as poetry, and pieces that are struck through and partially blacked out, Deryn Rees-Jones’ most recent collection has a variety of concerns, but never far from the surface is loss and erasure and in particular the loss of her husband.


The very next poem asks its reader to consider what it means if every line of a poem is scored out. ‘Liadain and Cuirithir’ is a charming love poem based on the story of two seventh century Irish poets, who met and loved but briefly. Yes, I had to look it up. In many ways I suppose Rees-Jones sees her own story here. But the crossings out? Are they more than the obvious representation of lost love? Who knows. But at least it has me asking questions about the nature of this particular take on concrete poetry, and that, I imagine, is the point.


The final poem in the collection, its end stop, is another bird poem. ‘Nightjar’ is a sonnet where the bird’s song is beautifully evoked, ‘star litter, night fragment, slip down a spine of grass’, and where the poet’s wish is to ‘let her open up a space, beside you – there / now, there – close beside your heart.’ As with the rest of this collection it is a loving tribute, perfectly observed.


I am left though with an abiding admiration for the central sonnet sequence ‘I.M.’ Thirteen-lined though they are and variants in that sense, one might suggest that the missing line is absent for a reason. It’s not called in memoriam for nothing. These are songs of love and loss, a heartache that is almost unbearable: ‘Into this breakage and this breach / its roughened magic, love approximate …’. Just so.


These excerpts were first published in The North, Issue 64. To read the full review, subscribe at poetrybusiness.co.uk

Review by Camille Ralphs, The TLS

Friday, March 27, 2020

The poetry in Erato, Deryn Rees-Jones’s most recent collection, is also an attempt at sciagraphy, at locating the solidity behind a shadow, or the sincerity at the heart of a mistake. Although the book takes its name from the goddess of lyric poetry, a reader is likely to think first of errata. Rees-Jones plays on this throughout the book – one poem is titled “Erratum”; another mentions “a place in which a self resides and language empties out, / … error/errata, the scratchy being of is and was”. Here, the usually invisible progress of slow misremembering, of filtering or romanticizing, or of protective or censorious impulses – in short, “of love and all its erasures” – is made perceptible.

Rees-Jones implies that she saw the world off-kilter after the loss of her husband, the poet Michael Murphy, in 2009 (a subject she also explored in Burying the Wren, 2012). “Everything seemed different”, she writes. “… Everything seemed.” Her now muted hurt manifests itself in part through erasure poems (pieces in which some text is obscured, the writing itself in widow’s weeds or donning a blindfold). Each line of “Líadain and Cuirithir”, for example, is skewered by a strikethrough, adding force to Líadain’s claim that “my heart’s burnt out”. But what is most interesting is that even in the case of the severest maskings – those in “13 Numbered Fragments Keeping Barbara Hardy in Mind”, which is in fact fourteen fragments, mimicking a sonnet, and in which lengthy segments are blacked out – it remains possible, with the right light and a (literally) close reading, to discern the “erased” words. “Creative thinking sounds closer to a lie” reluctantly emerges; as does “the poet must over-read and over-interpret the moment of writing”, which implies a process of redaction in writing from memory; so do the words “the discomfort”, “I am learning to be surprised again and to suffer my own dismay”, and “broken”.

The “human remains” in Erato’s opening poem, “Erasure”, foreshadow these inhumed presences and their resurfacings. In it Rees-Jones revisits Paris, retracing steps she once took with her husband, and watches her son “drawing and getting frustrated as he left a mark, erased it, left another mark on the paper … the old marks still showed through. They dented the paper like stretchmarks, little scars”. While some of the autobiographical prose poetry here feels less than inevitable, as if parts might be interchangeable, this is seldom a problem. Erato draws power from its concept, its suggestion of beloved memory as palimpsest, as much as from the writing that that concept generates. What’s more, its more traditional lyric poems, such as “I.M.” and “A Courtship”, grow touchingly, waveringly unstable in the context of the rest of the book.

Fires, a lyric essay written to supplement an exhibition called The Errant Muse at the University of Liverpool, is a less developed companion work. In it, Rees-Jones announces an intention to “nudge towards asking, what might we call – for a moment at least – a philosophy of lyric poetry”. Erato and Fires draw from the same pool of references (Woolf’s “Poetry: a voice answering a voice”, for example) and recurring images, such as the fires that “keep returning, re-igniting” throughout both works, and the interplay of poetry and quotidian existence: the “prosody” of making tea, the “metrics of being alone” (Erato); the poet’s “iamb- / ulatory” movement (Fires). Rees-Jones hedges, with “for a moment at least”, perhaps because it takes some work to establish what her philosophy is. Fires is bitty and etiolated, both as essay and as poetry: white space almost smothers the words. This is not irksome in itself, but as quotations start to feel haphazardly inserted (Stephen Hawking, Deleuze and Guattari, Julia Kristeva, Sylvia Plath?) it can become so. In some ways this reads more like a commonplace book.

Returning to Erato, to a poem also titled “Fires”, might help. “Fires” describes a boy whose foster carer once found him setting fire to a chair. To the carer, this was a relief: “His usual response to his unbearable pain was to self-harm”. Making the best of the discovery, “they arranged the building of future fires (poems?) – safely, out of sight”. Comparing the writing of poems to the construction of cathartic fires comes close to recommending poetry as a therapeutic tool. But in Fires, Rees-Jones lists varied applications, including “poetry as autobiography”, “devastation”, “falsehood”, “home”, “utopia” and, in another hedge, “x, y, z” – though “sublimation” is one of its uses, she will not seal poetry in a first-aid box. Finally, she circles warily back around to Erato’s central idea, to “Poetry as the marks of movement, poetry as loss?” That may not be everybody’s philosophy of lyric poetry, as the shadowy Erato may not feel like every lyric poet’s muse, but it is fair to call it Deryn Rees-Jones’s – for a moment at least.

Review from Poetry London

Monday, February 24, 2020

    Deryn Rees-Jones’s new collection, a bold, often beautiful, sometimes challenging book, takes its name from Erato, the Greek Muse of lyric poetry. An excellent introduction to this particular Muse can be found in an interview with Rees-Jones, on the website of her publisher, Seren. Here she speaks of her wish to create ‘imaginative structures’, and of her ‘uncertainty about writing about the complexities of a relationship [with her late husband] in an elegiac, romanticised way’. 

   Erato begins with ‘Mon Amour’, a candid account, in prose, of reaction to a routine email, which re-awakens grief:

   ‘All afternoon I lay there in an old vest and pants with my hair tied up [...] running
   films back-to-back [...] I thought about love and all its erasures.’

Listen to the ending of Erato’s first poem, ‘Líadain and Cuirithir’, with its long, urgent, singing vowels:

    Can you tell me a love that doesn’t own pain? [...]
    my heart’s burnt out. It’s an unmarked grave
    that gathers mists and rain.

Now imagine those lines scored through, so blackly that it is hard to read them. That is how they appear in Erato: a shocking demonstration of Rees-Jones’s wariness of the lyric.

   A gradual reconciling to her own gifts comes through openness to the natural world. ‘Lyrebird’ re-admits sumptuous vowels, in praise of a bird: ‘the gorgeous, urgent span of him’. ‘A Courtship: Great Crested Grebes’ introduces sex, animal, but not brutal: ‘how he rises up [...] behind her in the reeds, / to mount her with a tenderness’. The moving sonnet, ‘Collared Doves’, delicately offers tentative rhymes in its closing couplet : ‘She who learnt meanings of not not no, never / They who have come so late to each other’. ‘Deryn is the generic name for a small, brown bird’, Rees-Jones reveals, in a later prose section.

     Erato, whether in prose or poetry, can be piercingly moving. In ‘Walk’, Rees-Jones describes sitting up with her son at night. Even the brand name of the cereal they have been eating becomes an echo of parting:

    I was scared now

                    and took a deep breath. It felt like a wounding. I said, But even in the
    darkness, you know you are alive 

    When I looked my son had fallen asleep, the bowl of Cheerios clenched in his     
    small hand.

    In ‘Palisade’, Rees-Jones slips fluidly from prose to poetry, conjuring, through rhythm and deep word-play, three generations walking beside her, dead father, lost husband, living children: ‘one step each of / us, falling in and out of time.’ It may be a shock to discover that the ‘palisade’ of the title is a device built by her father to contain maggots used to treat gangrene. But the unsparing honesty of Erato may be necessary, for both poet and readers, to free the flow of fully rhymed lyricism in the sequence ‘I.M.’ [In Memoriam]. Here are two endings from what Rees-Jones calls, beautifully, in her interview, ‘the little song of the sonnet’:

    Darling, what did I leave when we left you
    where sky and water meet?

    Your voice sits in my mobile phone.
    It was our perfect happiness
    to make your self my own.

Each sonnet in ‘I.M.’ has only thirteen lines. Even the form of these song-like poems mirrors loss.

    Rees-Jones confronts her reader with startling black deletions almost to the end. Her penultimate piece, ‘13 Numbered Fragments [...]’, between its deletions, quotes insights from ‘a last email’: ‘ “Poetry... a voice answering a voice.” ’ The voice of the final poem of Erato is a startling echo of Lavinia Greenlaw’s realisation that the dead have ‘their own space beside us’, and of the fluid spaciousness of Mona Arshi’s poems of loss and recovery. Rees-Jones’s last lines, and their title, belong to one of her beloved birds, the ‘Nightjar’:

   let her open up a space, beside you – there
   now, there – close beside your heart.

Review by Sandeep Parmar, The Guardian

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Deryn Rees-Jones’s Erato (Seren) takes its title from the classical muse for love poetry and song. A mix of lyric essays and verse forms, the book returns fluidly and insightfully to the relationship between the self and memory, in particular trauma and loss. “I thought about truth and I thought about lies. I thought about love and all its erasures.” Erato also suggests erratum, or error, another preoccupation of the psyche as it holds and withholds time from the collective and the individual: a lover, a neighbour, a metamorphosing animal or tree. Rees-Jones moves between prose and poetry as if to test language in the act of transfiguration. Her imagination interpolates the personal body in the political and natural worlds with deep sensuousness, a muscular intelligence.

Review by Jonathan Edwards, Planet

Friday, November 1, 2019

This review was first published in Planet 236. Visit their website for more information planetmagazine.org.uk.

Deryn Rees-Jones is among Wales’s most exciting poets; a new book by her is always an event. Erato picks up where her last collection, Burying the Wren, left off; the book is a sustained and deeply moving treatment of the subject of grief.


The use of prose gives a sense that Erato is engaged with the best way of finding a poetic form for grief, this is deepened by the textual erasure and redraftings in these poems. ‘Líadain and Cuirithir’ is a sonnet in which every line is struck through, while ‘Cell’ offers two versions of the same poem. ‘Erratum’ redrafts the collection’s earlier poem ‘The Owl Husband’ as prose ’13 Numbered Fragments Keeping Barbara Hardy in Mind’ obliterates sections of the text with solid black chunks. In this way, the writer seems to grapple with the question of what it is to write effectively about grief, heartbreakingly attempting to clarify and hold on to memories.


The long poem ‘I.M.’ is a masterpiece of love and grief, in which the music of ‘Blackbird, linnet, / songthrush, robin’ interlocks with the music of language.


When reading work like this – in which the writer faces the most important and inarticulable human experiences and wrings beauty from them, dealing directly with her own experience of grief and, in doing so, connecting with every reader’s experience of it – one is left with a feeling that is so common when reading Rees-Jones. It is a feeling that answers the question I started with, of what poetry is for, and which, for all the ways in which Erato’s textual experiments build doubt and disruption into the text, sing with certainty. It is a feeling that can best be expressed with these four words: poetry is for this.

Review by Siriol McAvoy, Gwales

Friday, September 27, 2019

This fifth collection by Deryn Rees-Jones is an invocation to Erato, classical Muse of lyric poetry and songs, whose name means ‘lovely’ or ‘beloved’. Yet in the poet’s hands, Erato’s lovely face is pixelated, blurred, transformed into her shadow guise: goddess of error, errancy and erasure. The collection’s narrative arc explores how ‘the scribble mess’ of self is constituted ‘by what we love’ and thus, inevitably, through slippage, failure and loss. It also offers a precise, darkly funny exploration of ‘middle age’ with its divagations, its difficult movements: ‘What stepping in / and back and on / is this, this middle age?’, cries the voice of ‘Firebird’.

The theme of error is registered through traumatic repetition: the ‘face blackened to a shroud of bees’, the ghostly ‘nucleus of / shadow’ that the speaker seeks to ‘run my hands / across’ are images that recur in surreal, painterly fashion (Rees-Jones acknowledges her indebtedness to artist Paula Rego). But bereavement and ‘heartbreak’ are seen, not just as terrifyingly empty spaces, but as passionate states in their own right, electric in their disordering/reordering of time and self – and thus, potentially generative.

Like Rees-Jones’s previous works, Erato is centrally concerned with the body: poems take in a loved one’s amputated limb, the bodies of saints; observed bodies, the political body; bodies as forensic materials or artefacts. Probing the strategies by which corporeality is erased, monitored, and understood in the contemporary, technological world, it asks: how do we think about, memorialise and experience, our body, others’ bodies?

This poet’s quirky experimentalism serves her aim to bend and break the limits of the lyric, in order to link the personal with the planetary. Melding documentary reportage with lyrical reminiscence, she includes prose-like pieces structured like sonnets, poems approximating song lyrics (‘Autumn Leaves’ echoes Leonard Cohen and Jacques Prévert’s ‘Feuilles mortes’), poems that use strikethrough and blanking-out techniques to foreground the erasure that is usually hidden in digital print.

Environmental destruction hovers over the collection, the felt shadow (like middle age) of an imperceptible tipping-point. ‘Mon Amour’ depicts the flickering black-and-white scenes of the film Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Marguerite Duras, hinting at desire dreamt in and through environmental devastation; an elderly family member on the point of death is imagined poignantly as ‘a lost child or a sea-fox in a blazing world, that lone seal on a stone.’ At times, the collection is almost unbearably urgent (it even witnesses the Notre Dame fire of April 2019), half-overwhelmed by what the author calls ‘the siren … [of] the modern world, a … sound of danger and distress’. It bravely explores the possibility (impossibility?) of poetry in a world where everything is in a state of assault, everywhere a conflict zone, asking, ‘What was the difference between a sigh and a song?’

The bricolage feel of the poems – their ‘sound debris’ – matches the ‘bright hard LEGO pieces that never seem to have a chance to be stuck together’ depicted in ‘Palisade’. Yet while this is a collection proper to the plastic age, it retains an intense sense of kinship with the natural world: the ‘Courtship’ sequence directs a keen eye to the love-making practices of birds, signalling in its slow rhythms and imagistic mirroring a continued belief in the possibility of bringing together language and world, lover and lover. Tracing the twists and turns of Erato, Rees-Jones offers a collection that is giddily disorienting, incandescent, bleak – and yet, at heart, graciously optimistic.

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Review by Heather Treseler, PN Review

Friday, September 20, 2019

There is a startling moment in Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in which his clinical mask cedes to something like emotional honest with his reader: ‘Why this process […of grief] should be so extraordinarily painful is no at all easy to explain in terms of mental economics,’ he observes with exasperation. Yet he concludes, ‘It is worth noting that this pain seems natural to us.’ Freud marvels at the sheer cost of mourning – its outsized role in our affective lives – but concedes that grief is part of the tax of being human.

Mourning is turned into an engine of music in Deryn Rees-Jones’s Erato. The accomplished poet’s fifth book channels the Greek muse of lyric poetry to explore love’s repatriations: how it returns us to old countries of desire, to latent territories of need, despite the ways in which time and task continually force us forward. In prose poems, sonnets, clever erasures, sharply edged lyrics, and blues stanzas, Rees-Jones varies the mode of her melody, drawing as ably on post-modern techniques as neo-Romantic imagery.

This ambidexterity is rare. The poet, moreover, balances the high polish or protean craft with attention to the ideological frames around the lyric moment. She assimilated the paradox that so puzzled Freud to render grief, in its ‘natural’ excess, alter idem. These poems are not affirmative pabulum, but songs from the midlands of mid-life, trawled from the tears of things. In ‘Autumn Leaves,’ the speaker addresses a late husband, reporting on would-be successors:

One carried a canvas
instead of a flame,
one lied to his wife

and then lied again.
One wept for his mother
and called me her name:

they’re not you
And the autumn leaves
lift me up like a song

and carry me through.
Your sunburned arm slips in
to the words of another,

But that’s not you, that’s not you,
in my middle years, darling,
passing through.

Slender tercets borrow loosely from the structure (point, counter-point, and ironising turn) of a blues stanza in a tragicomic catalogue of lovers whose affections are sullied by artistic need, outright deceit or Oedipal confusion. In her note on this gem, Rees-Jones acknowledges its connection to Jacques Prévert’s ‘Feuilles mortes,’ but her poem remakes the old song into something new: a love elegy that is a conversation with the dead and a comedic rebuke of the living whose literal baggage (a canvas, a mother, a web of lies) prohibits sincere connection.

‘I.M.,’ a sequence of thirteen line ‘disappointed’ sonnets, as the poet terms them, are at the actual and figurative centre of the book. Each shortened sonnet also varies in its placement of the concluding couplet, destabilising the reader’s sense of pattern and pairing. The second sonnet begins:

An old love is a kind of promise.
In the first rush of new unholy orders
there’s a wish to make a body limitless.
Now here’s a longing for my breast
to meet a mouth, for you again to slip your hands
inside my heard and with a turn of limbs
to bring a rhyme of colour to my cheek.

Delicately, the poet allows the reader to inhabit an uncanny space: the intimacy of lovers’ practiced liturgy. A memory of ‘unholy orders’ is held against its absence.

Ten prose poems – a third of the collection – serve as exoskeleton, positioning the lyric interiority against worldly incursions. The first, ‘Mon Amour,’ begins with the casual brutality of a bureaucratic request: a university email ask faculty to document all ‘human remains’ on campus, specifically ‘bone, teeth, hair, skin, nails, saliva (i.e. collections for  DNA analysis)’. The absurdity of biometric data gathering is just one aspect of the phantasmagoria of the everyday that she reverses, judging politics against the body.

In ‘Palisade’, for instance, a father calmly suffers from the incremental ravage of diabetes, and the ghost of his diminishing body reappears in ‘Gardens’ as the speaker examines the ‘stump’ of an uprooted tree. If psychoanalysis cannot calculate the ‘mental economies’ of mourning, poetry can reckon with the conflated traumas of biological, ecological, and political breakdown. Later in ‘Gardens’ the speaker observes:

The Home Secretary was moving tanks onto the streets. We
lived in a Hostile Environment. Now water was halting pro-
ceedings in the House. It was spilling through the ceilings of
the Chamber in huge drops like thought-bubbles. Notre Dame
was in flames.

Rees-Jones provides a means – a subjective register – for hearing what ‘circumstances of sound electrifies the heath, / open up the dark.’ With admirable exactness she charts the existential bewilderment that frustrated Freud, his narrow paradigms lacking the dimensionality of these unflinching poems.

Review by Rupert Loydell, Stride Magazine

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Deryn Rees-Jones' Erato is a devastating return to form.

The core of the book is a number of prose poems, spinning out and away from grief but with absence as a centre. The texts focus in on the momentary, on remembered details, and move by association and emotion as much as time or narrative. In between are more individual poems, sometimes brief observational lyrics, including a sonnet sequence and a poem after Rimbaud.

'Imagine a landscape folded into a room' is the opening line of 'Cell', and this for me is the nub of these poems, memory, ideas and images folded up within the room, or self, of the poem. There is a surety and lightness of touch here, with the author re-presenting her memories but leaving us to make a choice of how to respond to them. The poems are certainly melancholic and moving. 

   Concentrated and erotic, or something

                                                              Or something
   in the spaces between?

she writes in 'Fires' when discussing the work of Julia Kristeva, as the text moves from parental intervention and concern, to Virginia Woolf's lighthouse, and on through Freud and Elizabeth Bishop, through Kristeva to Dylan Thomas. Yet this is no academic treatise, this is the literary world the poet inhabits, it's as natural a progression and digression as bird watching and gardening are elsewhere. It also summarises how this poetry is working, leaving room in 'the spaces between' for the reader.

Erato finds its author balancing the fact she remains both lost and at home in the world, mixing the vivid and luminous present with the past. Her nostalgia is controlled and shaped, her eye alert to the foibles of memory and grief. This is a wonderful, lyrical collection, full of bright language and love.

Review by Andrew McMillan, Poetry Book Society

Friday, June 7, 2019

Much is often made (quite rightly) of the exciting and energetic new voices which emerge into poetry each year. But what of the voices who have been working at deepening, strengthening and expanding their art over many years? Deryn​ Rees-Jones’ new collection is at once a firm continuation of her singular poetic project and a lightning strike which takes both her work and us as readers into utterly unfamiliar territory.

I’m reminded of what Ian Duhig said of Rees-Jones’ Burying The Wren (Seren, 2012), that it was a collection which marked “an important development in her work”; the same could be said of this collection and yet development seems too mild a word. Rather a departure, a rupture, a new beginning.

This is a formally varied collection; long prose explorations side by side with Haiku-like glimpses. In the first of the prose pieces, indeed the book’s opener, ‘Mon Amour’, Rees-Jones writes: “Yet all landscapes I held within me seemed to be receding”. That seems key to unlocking this work, something long held within, finally let go of, and something new emerging in its place. That opening poem ends with a paradox, that dual-sense of both an ending and a new beginning is what makes this collection so exciting and moving.

Something I knew was only beginning.

Something, I knew, was at an end

There are poems here of nature, of birds, of the body; poems which are tender to the wider world, not just to the physical self. There are poems which are small and intimate and, in ‘Walk’ in particular, poems which speak to the world and its geo-political state. This is a book which is always looking towards something new, the old ways, the old forms, the contended lyric, is not enough anymore (or so this book seems to suggest) and so there is a reaching out, of the line, of the image, in order to try and grasp something which might be just beyond reach, but which the poems will keep trying to move towards.

I wanted to be light, light as air.

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