Caitlyn Bailey’s new book, Solve for Desire (Milkweed Editions, 2019) sings the swan song of Austrian pianist Grete Trakl and poet Georg Trakl in four parts and fifty-five poems. Looking in upon this privately-guarded brother-and-sister relationship, Bailey takes the point of view of Grete, who spent her life loving a brother who ran off to war then killed himself, so she killed herself too.
From a tiny attemptress of a kingfisher-turned-poet, to a tidal wave of self-destructive sympathy, here is my ode to you, Ms. Bailey, for stealing my heart and tearing it in two.
Part one is a serrated knife, its trajectory plotted toward bone. It cuts the jugular instead. You feel no pain as it takes your life. Swiftly replaces its meager frame with something less delicate, more experienced with pain.
Bailey’s words carve dark hollows into the memories of childhood. In her drug-fueled haze, nightmares comprise Grete’s days. She’s lying awake, watching the curtains shift into trees she and her brother once carved in a distant memory, the heart holding their initials seethes with blood-red ink.
“Sometimes I can’t believe my heart, how it continues. How it isn’t black and withered, how the chambers remain clear, the beat plain and perfect.” ~ from “Pigeons”
Part two is a whale with a burst heart. The current is her equilibrium. She seeks strangulation, deoxygenation, then peace and darkness, forever. But despite all her admonitions and her slights against health and psyche, she lives. Why God, do you let these children live?
The bottom drops out. There is a lack of something untenable to the prying eyes of strangers. Georg is killing men who intend to kill him, and Grete’s playing the part at home, putting on a show. To onlookers, all appears as it should. Meanwhile, Grete’s in the dark, digging in the trenches of her own soul, hollowing out her spine, scooping away what womanhood she has. She searches for that missing something around alleyways and, eventually, she tires of the strain. Our feet ache with her as we settle in to rest, place head back down to pillow. We pretend it was never any different.
“You must know I keep writing these letters, missives dropped around the city, crumbs for your ghost.” ~ from “Somewhere a Key”
These words turn me into a monster. I am, for a moment, Grete, a troll with no light. I hide my darkness, my shame unbecoming. I have yet to find a name for this feeling. Instead I keep reading, devouring, and chewing open holes in my cheeks. No one must ever know, but then again, they must. Word must get out, but how to share? Chasten my love’s heart with an unfathomable explanation? Best to do what the greats have done, and write about writers who write about writers. I’ll create a salve for the secret place in the back of my skull that’s become an open wound, overnight. I am planting my woes in someone else’s garden.
“I will learn to walk again in a country where you don’t exist.” ~ from “Where We Are Both Well”
How can anyone truly love? How could you not know it if they did? If only we could be there, to see their faces, and perhaps paint them, but circumstance and elegance kept their feelings hidden. Incest will never be accepted in society, not a hundred years ago, not twenty years from now. No one can know love like they did, not with the full-bodied, guttural lifesong breadth that Bailey casts about her, her poetry a net that entraps me, forever.
Part three. She’s genuflecting. They may not know each other anymore, but Grete doesn’t realize this. Did Georg? Is that why he did it?
As kids, they used to run and play, and now that they have their own lives, Grete lives in a field of constant mourning. Her rose has dried up and died. Unused.
From the way Bailey describes it, Grete lived in the future. She was pining over her inevitable loss. First slowly, little by little. He went to war. Then all of a sudden he commits suicide and the freshet springs once more.
The signal’s lost, no more electric current to oscillate between trust and misdeeds. Is she finally free to worship her long-lost king, now that he’s gone?
In my eyes, she’s finally allowed to fully feel the promise in the challenge, the stalwart compromise.
“I have given myself over to everything you’ve touched.” ~ from “Litany for G”
Until part III, most of the poems in this collection are rimed with blood-clotted sinew, leaving you cringing with every line, your doubt renewed with each turn of the page, but “Men I Could Have Loved” feels downright creepy. I’m seeing a woman crawling through dew-soaked grass, the sun threatening to come peeking up over the hill to blind her nyctophialiac eyes, exposing her small descent to the false grave she planted in the backyard. There’s dirt beneath her fingernails.
“A hive of bees slated to die exists somewhere.” ~ from “Animus”
Part quatre. The world is a flock of birds flying apart. They come to roost down south to get away from the winter chill. All is ice crag and white silver for Grete is falling falling falling down well after well, all while her husband worries the knot in the bucket’s rope. He holds her up, best he can. He must know her heart belongs to another, which makes me respect him even more.
The poem “Paradise” sounds a lot like heroin, if you read it backwards. Can it end the way it began? I feel this poem like a trip down the rabbit hole, the slot an inch larger than my circumference. Her words, the walls of this cage, flay my skin apart with their interrogating thorns and I am whole, seeking nothing but this sweet death.
The relationship Grete and Georg had was intense. They were indifferent, imperfect, impervious to wars raging around them. Why Georg went off to live and breathe in the literal toxins of the real world baffles me. Why not die at your sister’s side, feeding off diatribes and imaginary toads and foxes in the hillside? Maybe they found comfort in the sounds of mourning. Was that their norm? They each longed for a way to express true love’s intent: a man dies in battle, a woman dies mourning a man. Idealists and dreamers rarely see the light of day, so couched in their fervors are they.
In “Riot”, a stillness, the calm throughout the storm. She percolates in her white noise relationship, a walking talking effigy, her body the sarcophagi of copaceticism. Inside, Grete is dying a thousand deaths, knowing full well her brother is on the opposite side of the continent, trying his damndest to get himself killed. Why couldn’t he wait for her? Why go it alone? A frightened dog, he found his mulberry bush, and hiding away, buried himself beneath the cool, quiet branches of love’s lost confusion.
“What Comes After” provides a synopsis, ties it all up in a blinding red bow.
“Projection, petri dish, sliver of sky.” ~ from “What Comes After”
All we ever want is right before us, Grete intimates. It is the will of our hearts and minds to go on creating reasons to live. We mythologize our counterparts, to a fault, praying they’ll never leave us, but sometimes when they do, we don’t understand it, go mad with grief and blunder through a new wall of insanity. Bailey paints a lurid picture: crows fly into the windows of their home and Grete is in love. Who is in the wrong? What is real?
Death is the one true way out.
And in writing her way through her the temporary imprisonment that is knowing and being with these two, Caitlyn is free from the shackles as well.
The same cannot be said for me.