Book Reviews Features

Elegy for a Culture: A Review of Poet Austin Segrest’s collection, Door to Remain

By Darren Morris

Austin Segrest’s book of poems, Door to Remain, won the 2021 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry from University of North Texas Press. Karl Kirchwey was the final judge. Segrest published a long poem in our journal and we are grateful to have the opportunity to bring his book to our readers’ attention. 

It is not unusual to read elegies of family members—in this case, the poet’s mother—but there must be a powerful original quality to the presentation of that grief in order for it stand up among its many poetic influences in the elegiac tradition. In this, the writing makes an investigation not simply of the particular way loss and memory conspire inward to shape an individual’s experience but blossoms outward to check an anxiety of influence on large abstracts of love and separation amid a sea of pop culture or social norms. 

There are three poems nearing the end of the volume that offer a release of tension and represent a shift into a different voice that is more assured and at peace and, therefore, feel less burdened with events which antagonized it. In The End of Analysis, the voice enters into second-person instructional, freed from the first-person that has kept him “pinned” to his therapist’s couch. Yet now that he has decided to stop his sessions, “the spell is broken,” and he can “see him now— / around town” the same way he perhaps can begin to see his mother as an individual in her own right, after her death. Freed, the poet can ask the most pressing and perhaps unanswerable questions directly: “Who am I? Can I love? Am I real?” Yet there is a realization that the questions themselves are “holding me back,” indicating a flawed past of greater order even though it was born out of the chaos of a mother’s depression and its effects on his life.

The next poem, Venus in Transit, puts the poet in the astronomer’s telescope and points to the rare “kernel” of a planet near the sun, the particle within the magnitude, and a moment within the length of space-time. Once found, authenticated as event, the parallel of “the spot on the liver or lungs” arises. To authenticate is to accept the truth, to see his mother in as much totality as he can. To know that she, and now he as a product of her, existed, is also to accept that her limitations as a mother were just parts of her larger self. The poet’s loss is now both as distanced and irretrievable as it is immediate and personal. Finally we come to Björklunden, which the poem “translates to birch grove, through cedars, / ropey, creaking, growing right up to the water, / predominate, clinging tight / to rocks that come up with them.” The poem is dedicated to Claudia Emerson, who was a force in poetry, won the Pulitzer, taught for a short time at VCU, and died in 2014. Perhaps a poetic mother to Segrest, she is noticeably an influence in his lines. Here the poet is signaling a shift, standing at creaking doorways which present images much the way poetry makes images of ink on paper, invoking the imagination with details that which would otherwise be overlooked by regular repetitive compilations of the norm. The external indicates the inner emotional value. There is real epiphany at work in this poem and it requires the preceding poems to set it free. A doorway is understood to be a way in but also a way out. The poem is overtaken by a stunning image of ice floe amid the trees, signaling a breaking and natural release:

Long and low, the meltwater waves
sluice through ankle-deep ice that seems
dumped out from champagne buckets.
Long and low and gray-green (perhaps the tide is coming in),
like beater bars pushing back the weft, 
they slap back low beneath the shelf,
touching the hem and clearing out, 
running blind fingers over the bedrock's pitted braille.

It is a fine first book by Austin Segrest. We are honored to be one of the journals who saw a certain brilliance in his work before the book came to be, and we are pleased to share his work here with you. 

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Door to Remain

by Austin Segrest

University of North Texas Press $14.95

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Darren Morris’s poetry has appeared in The American Poetry ReviewBest New PoetsThe Missouri ReviewNew England ReviewNorth American ReviewPoetry Ireland ReviewRaritanThe Southern Review, and others. He earned his BA from the University of Missouri and MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is one of the founding editors of Parhelion.

Darren’s newest work can be found at The Roanoke Review and The Raleigh Review.

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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