Her poems here, like Whitman’s, are at once deeply personal and expansive. She channels a diversity of voices and experiences — from near and far, past and present — embracing them, intertwining them with her own. Despite the plural nature of her poetic personae, it’s this uniformly first-person sensibility, her determined empathy, that lends the whole a coherent, if kaleidoscopic, personality.
The St. Paul-based poet speaks for herself, of course, but her title is apt — she also effectively “pretends the world,” giving voice to a motley assortment of others, as well. With sensual, vivid language, Kysar weaves together a host of disparate vignettes and tiny character studies. You dip into the mind of a first-grader, then a feisty pioneer-era ingénue and a stalwart farm wife; memories of Midwestern grandmas, whose “rules about legs,/ thank you notes, and hemlines” hold their daughters firmly in place; a few hours in the life of an aging flamenco dancer passing through a post-Cold War, newly globalized Eastern Europe. A nameless Guangdong garment worker muses on the lives of those who will wear the clothing she makes.
Kysar’s twin powers of empathy and candor are formidable; she is particularly deft with the sort of small-scale detail behind which shimmers something universal: the unparalleled pleasure of a baby’s “silken skin freshly bathed;” the inevitable, small lonelinesses of mature marriage; the careening vicissitudes of sexual love.
Her subtler poems are her most effective, I think. A mother packs a sack-lunch or takes a summer vacation, all the while haunted by her far-flung counterparts, other mothers piecing together the savaged bits of their war-ravaged family. Kysar juxtaposes snapshots of the varieties of feminine experience — affluence and privation, violence and quietude, security and vulnerability, youth and maturity. The result is a timeless composite likeness of Woman.
In the end, she teases from these manifold voices a sense of unfolding continuity — the threads of distinct yet universal experience that, regardless of circumstance or historical context, bind the fabric of us all together.
“Pretend the World” by Kathryn Kysar (Holy Cow! Press, 2011) is available for ordering online and in bookstores everywhere. There is a companion art exhibition by the same name, showing an assortment of artworks by five local artists (three of them represented above) responding to the poems in Kysar’s collection. This exhibition is on view at Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts through Sept. 30, 6666 East River Road, Fridley, Minn., 55432. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.