Priscilla Becker's Internal West

By Samantha Thompson

Priscilla Becker's poetry is spellbinding. It’s unpretentious, straightforward and rudimentary in its effects and language; in other words, the exact opposite of the baroque experiments in language and typography so prized by the avant-garde. Becker belongs to no school of poetry that I know of. She’s neither conservative like the new formalists, nor radical like the language poets. Instead of focusing on arcane forms of verse or typography, Becker places her faith in the honest word. She simply tries to communicate with her readers in the most painful ways. In the “Return”, we see some of her ability to catch complex feelings in the plainest of terms.

                                     In pictures we would always say
                                    We look nothing like that.
                                    And that is something how it feels--inaccurate.
This stanza from the “Return” is a prime example of Becker’s simple and honest approach. She does not abstain from stating both what she wants to say and her inability to say it. She is clear about what she feels—“we look nothing like that” and then places her failures straight on the page without disguise. Her use of the word “inaccurate” guides the reader throughout the poem. It is a modest word that promises nothing, but in this context packs a huge emotional punch. It is the condition of her feelings. In a funny way it’s one of the most accurate descriptions of emotional inaccuracy you can get.

She's a tough writer
Internal West is not an easy read and is more like a conversation with a brutally honest friend. Becker's poems express feelings that are hard to admit, even to oneself. Still, there is a camaraderie that comes with telling the truth, and you feel it with Becker.
                                            I have been told
                                           That that was then. Sometimes
                                           I think I see you there; so many
                                           Nighttimes look like you.
“The Shadow” is wishing for something you can never attain. She knows that the past is over and yet still attempts to confront it and find some sort of reconciliation: “I think I see you there”. Her language weaves back and forth between past and present tenses and is unnerving in its inability to settle on one time scheme. The shadow’s purpose is not to console, but to remind¬¬–“sometimes I think I see you there”. A poem like this makes us want to be there with her. Becker is passionate and these poems are thoughtful of the psychological views that Becker is portraying, rather than any biography could ever offer. The poem “The Shadow” exposes the unspoken.

Becker reading
Becker is personal and her use plain language is homely and almost hypnotic. Given, her past, her husband’s death and her struggles with eating disorders, Internal West becomes the antithesis of an antidote. Becker avoids all attempts at healing. She is a writer that benefits from harmful events and holds them dear. In a “Letter After an Estrangement”, we see her inability to escape the most painful aspects of life.

                          I forgot to tell you my husband died.
                         He was in Spain and something strange
                         Happened with alcohol or water.
                        He loved them both so much.
                        Which reminds me, do you want to be
                        Cremated or buried? The difference,
                        If you do not know, is the ghost or the body . . . .
                       The house hates me
                       And breaks everything touch.
                       I myself prefer to be left face up
                       in a ditch
“Letter After an Estrangement” is more concerned with a direct address. She personifies home and the idea of shelter into an enemy. “The house hates me/ and breaks everything I touch.” There will be no rest for Becker, physical or psychological. Even the home she resides in does not take her side. Here is a beautiful example of the self-sabotage that comes with absolute loss: “I myself prefer to be left face up/ in a ditch.” That’s an ugly image, from a poet who has no interest in escaping any type of pain or self-mortification.

                                                  just yesterday I did not know
                                                  I had no reason to go on.
                                                  For instance, I heard bells.
                                                  Its been so long since I heard
                                                  bells, I thought first
                                                  I heard them wrong.
“Internal West”, is a possible ending or a way out. The renewed familiarity with the bells signals her estrangement from reality: that time is no longer consistent and that senses can be lost. The poem is practically a suicide note. “Internal West” is a catalogue of Becker’s thoughts on having nothing more to do, except take what this day can offer and learn from it: “yesterday I did not know I had no reason to go on.” She isn’t forcing us to adopt a philosophy or to feel as she does, and yet it happens anyway. The precision of her language lures us in and we want to feel as she does.

She will not liberate your misery
All these poems share a feeling of being continuously wrung out. There is no liberation from the misery felt and no desire to let it go. Becker’s is simple, but what she has to say is assertively misanthropic. Her writing is not meant to mend, but processes thought, and this is where Becker excels. Internal West is an intimate observation of what it is like to feel pain and not recover. Only to be shown to those willing to bury their fictitious selves. She is not going to lie to us, but she does add more beauty into a painful world.

©Samantha Thompson and the CCA Arts Review

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