Unlike the last book of poetry I reviewed, Christine Heppermann’s Ask Me How I Got Here, Jana Prikryl’s The After Party is not particularly narrative. The last third or so of the book, titled “Thirty Thousand Islands,” has some narrative elements, but for the most part the book is built more around form and language and personal history than plot. While that gives Prikryl a considerable amount of freedom to experiment, it also makes the collection a bit more hit-or-miss on an individual level, prone to wild shifts in subject from moment to moment. But Prikryl is an immensely talented writer, and while I never warmed to every poem in the collection, her wit, imagery, and style unquestionably won me over.
One of the reasons I ended up enjoying the collection so much is Prikryl’s gift for changing up the form of her poems at just the right moment. Many of the book’s poems are longer, mixing art and character and criticism into a lovingly-crafted morass. But just as you sink into her rhythms, she can throw something like “Timepiece” or “Tumbler” in and upend your expectations, forcing you out of your comfort zone with a quick, sharp rebuke of a poem. Over the course of the first two-thirds of the book, Prikryl shows that she can be funny (“Ars Poetica”), intellectual (“Benvenuto Tisi’s Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta Pulling a Boat with the Statue of Cybele”), autobiographical (“A Package Tour”), and much more, and while not every poem connected, a fair number of them did. But my mind keeps going back to those brief gut-punch poems that cast a wonderful pall over the proceedings, like “Tumbler”:
It was too much
to hope for to
hope we would know
when too much was
too much to hope
And then comes “Thirty Thousand Islands,” the linked sequence of 42 untitled poems that close out the collection. Here, Prikryl turns far more naturalistic. The book shifts gears from the playfully humorous (if dark) reminiscence of the opening poems to a more nostalgic melancholy. The natural world is omnipresent in these poems, Prikryl’s keen eye and command of language making even the briefest among them moody and expressive explorations of her world. Though the poems are untitled, the poems beginning, “Not lakes but islands,” or “Red and black” maintain the playful form that made many of the opening poems so gripping but find a bleaker heart that ended up sticking in my head long after I had stopped reading.
The After Party is loose and maybe a bit uneven, but quite often beautiful. Prikryl’s style is thoughtful, literate, even earthy at times, but even as it gripped me or painted an evocative picture of the landscape, I could never quite escape the book’s morose hidden heart. Filled with looping thought patterns backed up by staggering linguistic control, poems that have to be read and reread to fully unpack as they drive home a mild sense of despair, The After Party is a fascinating reading experience. It is dense and challenging but undeniably powerful, and while about half the poems didn’t particularly speak to me, there are an awful lot that are stuck in my head days later. There are a few I’ve read a dozen times since first picking up the book. The lack of a strong unifying theme may put some readers off who don’t know what to expect or have a harder time with some of the tonal shifts, but overall, I found The After Party delightfully erudite, an engaging tour of Prikryl’s mind.
Alexander Morrison is a writer and educator in the Midwest. He divides his time pretty evenly between reading, writing, film, and Titanfall 2, so you can tell he’s pretty well rounded. You can read his thoughts about love & sex in pop culture at Cinema Romantique, or follow him on Twitter at Ikiruined.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Tim Duggan Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.