Inhabiting the claustrophobia of marriage and domestic life, Erinn Batykefer’s poems use the deeply personal as the lens through which she investigates larger cultural ideas. She reckons with feeling simultaneously large and small, finding ways to face herself, and the need to be seen while within the confines of intimate relationships. Honest and explorative, these poems lead us through moments of fluctuation and faltering.
Erinn Batykefer’s striking new collection puts the form of the epithalamium to novel use: rather than celebrating marriage, these poems examine the danger inherent in intimacy, including not only the loss of the beloved, but the annihilation of the self. The collection is bracketed by remarkable poems in the voice of Jane Eyre, speaking from beyond the novel’s supposedly happy ending and into the troubled union that was to have been her reward. In another poem, the doomed speaker, a slave girl found beneath the ruins of Pompeii observes wryly that “cataclysm is a lens,” and through that lens, these poems show us a world wracked by disaster, redeemed not through beauty but through unflinching attention to transformation and decay.
Of the many things I’m wowed by in Erinn Batykefer’s Epithalamia, what I appreciate most is how the poems enact a mind at work. They engage with startling language and poetic form the emotional oscillation of relationships—the combined beauty and peril that create the ecstatic state of self-transcendence. One might imagine it feels like “Somewhere, under miles of water // a chandelier swings slowly / above the ruin of a grand staircase // its tinkling crystals silenced” because isn’t that how we feel on the precipice of great love—beautiful and ruined? With their lyric prowess and meditative sensibilities, these poems are both moving and powerful the way our poetry should be.
In Erinn Batykefer’s gorgeous Epithalamia, iterative imaginings of high-stakes, embodied love greet speaker and beloved across history and myth in order to expand the epithalamium’s traditional occasion. These poems bear powerful, sensual witness to love’s gifts as well as its dangers: as in the poem “Epithalamium: Herculano,” where we cannot know for certain whether a hand reaches for a face in love or malice, only that the two beings forever touch in burial—a tension that characterizes Epithalamia‘s vibrant interrogations of desire and loss. “The gold chill of his rings on my skin,” the speaker tells us, “was the last thing I felt.” Here, Batykefer builds a resonant, empowered space for us to hear the bride speak, and speak, and speak again.