My Love is a Dead Artic Explorer

Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Ahsahta Press

My Love is a Dead Artic Explorer: 
a Review

by Virginia Konchan

Sometimes, a petite woman
in an eyelet blouse reminded
us of our bodies.

We sat very still. We did not move
for hours. Eventually,
we forgot again.

—from “Northern Fado I”


Having spoken in an interview about her interest in the differentiation between passion and desire, Paige Ackerson-Kiely has created, with My Love is a Dead Artic Explorer, her second full-length collection, a numinous cartographic text that leads the reader from one signpost to another (within economies of passion/desire, love/passion, and love/duty, among others) in search of moorings.


“You know you made it/ this far, for you can see the knee-deep jabs your boots made/ in the rime trailing behind you, but you do not know when/ you are permitted to turn back, build a modest fire, take a/ spot of wine and ask to be taken care of. You know you love, for what else can you call it . . . ”

(from “Counting Thoughts”)


“I could not speak of the napkin's tremendous/ folds until I flattened them as a sheet sodden and afraid of/ being entered. I am ashamed, the great flock of cadavers lain/ out for dressing just so by my body. Hello. Who will breast the plates as such. Who will thigh the terrible sign. I am waiting, dear god; I am actually speaking to you—”

(from “Waitress Address”)

* * *

Inspired by Admiral Richard E. Byrd's memoir Alone, the speaker of these “poems” (many are in the form of verse paragraphs and carry a narrative heft) seems more invested in discovering an internal geography of the body, than an external geography of place.

Also from “Waitress Address”: “The body was a language and it talked to itself. The body/ was a chopstick, a kettle, a regrettable dishwasher holding/ the crystal to the light, saying, not quite yet . . . ”

Descartes' concept of the body-machine (and Deleuze and Guattari’s of desiring machines) is where the speaker of this collection leads us:  in the title poem, the speaker as much as declares that the power to name and to be named rescue the body from mechanistic oblivion and deliver it into the realm of self-possession, and grace.  “Although I/ knew not of dirty laundry at the time, I understood he was/ naming me and it was good. It was good to place my head in/ my very own hands, which were not as I imagined them—/ hatch batten downers, Pious, wincing shovels—but as he/ named them: Your Hands. And with this knowledge I rested./ I dreamt sweetly.”  The journey is rarely so sweet, however:  a reader of this text soon realizes how to embrace the sting of self-recognition in passages such as this one, from “Main Street”:  “This is our confession: This/ is how we had to kill ourselves—// when you say: No man/ can hope to be/ completely free/ who lingers within reach/ of familiar habits and urgencies.// Pity the gate we pry/ open so weakly.”

What My Love is a Dead Artic Explorer lacks in pith (weighing in at over 100 pages, many of the prose poems are a full page long), it more than makes up for with the wide-ranging transgressivity of the text’s lover's complaint.  Economies of desire don't so much do battle with economies of duty as they do frame the text as an extended meditation on desire in an age when the horizon of possibility shrinks by the hour.  Pitting forms of knowledge (from carnal to conceptual) against these various economies, the speaker pairs injunctions, such as the Calvinist “Do what you have to,” with “I love you” (from “Projections of the Death of an Important Figure”), forcing us to confront the fact that such economies of libidinal desire are not just a final frontier, but the final frontier, in contemporary life. 

Deftly representing the crisis that is entry into the symbolic order (“In my mind it stands as a rock, and/ as I do not have a sketch of myself leaning in forlorn attitude/ against its felsic table, you will have to take me at my word”), the reader follows the speaker’s un- and re-learning of the body’s own rhythms (those of versification, or not):  “I understand/ for you there is a notion of velocity, the percussive abuse of a/ foot which falls continuously and without regard to physics . . . ”

The theme of subjugation arises repeatedly in poems such as “The One-Life Theory” and “Unwriting a Letter”:  poems wherein the effort to stand aloft from one's subject (or one's love) crumbles under mistreatment (“those dogs worked so hard I continued to whip them”) and habit (“I looked// so beautifully down for a while/ the trash on the ground was my friend”)—but these strains or allusions complement rather than overwhelm the book's central focus and theme.   With Nabokovian gusto (indeed, a few key moment of this text read as an epilogue to Lolita—but from the perspective of Dolores), the text outlines its own aim as “why here & how to make it defensible.”  If “it” refers to the de- or as-yet-subjectivized body, the speaker understands its formal desire to be of use (“I have never been a lonely god/ but I understand the way rocks/ lie there just waiting to be formed into tools”) as well as its transcendent desire—satiation, if only to begin anew again:

“I want you.  Is never


A doctoral candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Virginia Konchan’s criticism has appeared widely, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New YorkerBest New Poets 2011Boston ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, the BelieverThe New RepublicNotre Dame ReviewMichigan Quarterly ReviewJacket, and Poet Lore, among other places.

Also by Virginia Konchan:

A review of The Lily Will by Melissa Dickey
A review of It is Daylight by Arda Collins
A review of A Witness in Exile by Brian Spears