Sublime Subliminal, Poems by Rena Priest
Rena Priest’s first book, “Patriarchy Blues” (MoonPath Press, 2017) won an American Book award. Her new chapbook, “Sublime Subliminal” (Floating Bridge Press, 2018) was a finalist for the Floating Bridge Chapbook Award. In an interview posted at the Mineral School’s blog conducted during her fellowship residency there in October 2017, Priest had this to say about her writing:
[T]he poems don’t always make sense, but I want to give my reader the feeling that there is some underlying formula involved, and I want to anchor them with images.
When reading Priest, it would be wise to take her guidance to heart. To look for the clues that emerge from the images she offers. To consider how her poems’ underlying structures, like subduction plates, may be moving even as they anchor. Be alert to the subliminal messages that are strewn throughout “Sublime Subliminal.” Some of these messages are found standing on their heads in tiny italics at the bottoms of pages on the outside or inside edges. That you don’t notice them right away is your first subliminal cue of what you are in store for as a reader. Will you figure out that the sideways messages are actually the translations of phrases within the poems themselves? There is much craft to envy in these poems. So dig in!
Priest notes that poems in the collection “were inspired by Jim Simmerman’s invented form ‘20 Little Poetry Projects,’” (published in The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell, eds.). The poems are eloquent even without knowing about this special sauce, but I found it informative to review the exercise. And be prepared to Google any number of references within the poems. That said, the poems are a pleasure on first read and then sneak up on you with more sinister notes on closer reading.
The first poem in the collection, “Sublime Subliminal Liminal” showcases Priest’s extraordinary talent for sounds:
The bridge is cerebral and phrenic— a mysterious reflex. When you put it to your lips, it is lexical.
Now listen to the music in these lines in “The Coined Phrase:
and a denouement that feels like krill on your skin—the silk of a half mill, in life and a whale’s meal made null.
Priest also dreams up some of the most interesting metaphors. An example is this surprising—and very funny–comparison in “Sublime Subliminal Liminal,”
You convulse. The bitterness is extra, like an impulse to discuss politics at length.
And then this extended metaphor, which takes the poem to a different level of meaning:
But between you and me, a tunnel is also a bridge. Each maintains a position on both sides of a threshold.
My favorite poem in the collection is “Super-sacred” which is an acerbic tour de force. Priest is introducing the reader to Native cultural appropriation from the first lines, “the super-sacred ceremony / is a portal to pre-contact.”
Parenthetically she advises her nonnative readers,
(This is my real Indian poem, the one the admissions board and a certain readership have been waiting for.)
And then she forgives us conditionally,
The super-sacredness of this, my real Indian poem is going to absolve all white guilt, but only if you buy my book
Each of the poems in Sublime Subliminal is at once partly amusing, partly ironic, partly musical, and partly a deep reflection on the current state of the world. Or the eternal state of love, as in “Canadian Tuxedo” (which we learn is denim-on-denim),
The drunken monkey of truth says, “It’s too late for you to never tell me you love me.” But I’ve already tasted in your kiss, the pixels of lightning you keep in your lips.
In the interview referenced earlier, Priest also said:
Just enjoy it for the way it sounds or feels.
I say: stop, look, and listen for Rena Priest. She is likely to surprise us again and again with her poetry.
Rena Priest is a Lummi tribal member and a writer. Her work draws on history, science, and culture to tell stories and seek truths. Her debut book, Patriarchy Blues, was released on MoonPath Press and garnered an American Book Award. Her most recent collection, Sublime Subliminal, is available from Floating Bridge Press. Her work can be found in literary journals and anthologies including: Diagram, Sweet Tree Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Collateral Journal. She is the recipient of a 2018 National Geographic Explorers Grant, to write about regional efforts to repatriate an endangered Southern Resident orca from an amusement park in Florida. She holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.