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While Phoebe Nilsen's chapbook is at first unassuming in its slender arrangement, its warning to the readers who trace their fingers down its white pages is great. Published in 2018 by Finishing Line Press, Without a Kiss explores the deep consequences of a missed romantic opportunity along with the bittersweet nostalgia and tortuousness regret that comes with confronting it. Even the cover (designed by Elizabeth Maines McCleavy) of this well crafted collection, in all its black and white glory, works to push readers back into their own past mistakes whether those took place yesterday or years ago for some.
Upon inspection, Nilsen's work is surprisingly devastating. The opening piece of the collection, "The Gondola," seems to set the stage for poetry which will have a happy, rose colored view of the past. This attitude changes rapidly and immensely. Once memories of the past have been awakened there is not stopping them from storming the mind. There is a wild grief hidden behind every word, and it leaps out upon the readers as surprisingly as it seems to on the speaker at times. Such is the case in "Casual" when the speaker declares, "That night / I weep for the young girl / who never held your hand / though she cradled you / for years / in her dreams." Nilsen's work will leave your heart as wreckage on the floor.
She also examines that false promise which is shared with seemingly all womankind, that those who are patient, those who wait, are rewarded. Nilsen rebukes this notion tone that could be called venomous in "Buried." In the piece Nilsen names those forever waiting girls as "Neferitits awaiting excavation." And before too long, their waiting stretches longer and longer than they could have ever imagined as "that love grain refuses to die, / still begs to live in your invisible presence." She continues on with all the coldness of a mountain peak in "Base Fear" when she delivers the lines, "But she has never been a temptress / caught in sin."
Throughout the text, Nilsen continues to display her mastery of poetic craft as she exquisitely captures the utter separation of time from human control. "We're panting heavily, / but the train is unaware / and will not wait." There is no hope in bribing time or nature to slow down or to turn back the clock. The only time a human can have any sense of control over is the present. If person were to lose sight of that and let time flow past them, they will become "...heavy with / accumulated years..." While Nilsen's work, as previously mentioned, is quite devastating, it is never without grace or poise. For example, just these few lines in "Reunion Bridge," "unaware of / silent beaver years / damming the wild river / into a quiet pool..." not only project intense images into the readers' minds but also skillfully convey such an intense emotional state. The laughing impetuousness of youth, passionate longing and unbridled hope is now contained, smothered in a life of set expectations. And yet, Nilsen's speaker is not downtrodden. The speaker states, "Love does not die, you say, / no matter how deeply we / are forced to bury it. It grows / and surfaces in mysterious smiles..."
The overall execution of Without a Kiss is wonderful. The pieces flow from each other and the construction of each piece is a thing of beauty. This is Phoebe Nilsen's only published collection to date. It must be said that it is with great anxiety that another publication is waited on. For now, though, readers must make do with this lone text. The pieces within will provide everything but disappointment.