Second-Person Prevails in Pagel’s Occult, Political Poetry


Photo by Rick Yu, Photo editor

Poet, editor, and assistant professor of English at Cleveland State University Caryl Pagel reads to an audience in Wilder Hall. Pagel came to Oberlin Wednesday to give a poetry reading in which she debuted several new works.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

There is something haunting about Caryl Pagel’s poetry — and it’s not just the gravestones that frequently appear in her work. Pagel’s writing is heavily steeped in the occult and references to Gothic literature, which she weaves into poetry that is both lyrical and feminist. In addition to having authored two collections of poetry, 2014’s Twice Told and 2012’s Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death, Pagel is also the co-founder and editor of Rescue Press, a poetry editor at jubilat and an assistant professor of English at Cleveland State University, where she also serves as director and editor of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Pagel came to Oberlin Wednesday night and read five more recent poems along with three from her previous collections.

Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Shane McCrae, who was a driving force behind bringing Pagel to campus, expressed awe and respect for Pagel’s extensive accomplishments, both in terms of her own writing and her work in publication.

“Caryl Pagel is a hero of mine,” he said. “She runs two presses, each of which is wonderful and each of which is increasingly a big deal. I could not do what she does, because I would actually die actual death if I tried. I would die, and so she’s my hero. And not only does she run the best presses, but she also writes the best poems.”

“Red Sky,” which she read Wednesday, exemplifies how her work plays with colorful imagery and quick-moving language: “red wine like the red sky / the red slit of sky above / you with salmon edges its holes / a turquoise belt at the horizon / hiding the woods you lie in.”

“I consider [my work] formal,” Pagel said. “It’s not always apparent, but all the poems are in some sort of form or another. I try to write in a musical way. … I hope that [people engage] with [my poetry] on a sonic level. … I hope that it’s a sonic pleasure that leads one’s imagination.”

Since Pagel published her first book five years ago, she has found that giving readings and performing her poetry has had a reciprocal effect on her writing.

“After my first book came out, … I realized that, for me, it’s really pleasurable to read long poems,” she said. “And so I started to write longer poems, with the idea that I can read them. It’s more fun to stay with a certain sonic stretch for a period of time.”

Pagel opened her reading in Oberlin with “Old Wars,” which quickly established one of the distinctive features of her style — everything that Pagel read on Wednesday was in the second person, something she said helps to create a ghostly effect and distance herself from her own work. The poem tells its tale, which vaguely recounts a life-saving act committed by an old woman during a time of war, as a sort of ghost of a story — the sequence of events has been repeated and passed down so many times that it is impossible to tell reality from surrealism.

“The narrator you think met / the old woman on a train / She had been to war or / at least you think you recall / reading that she said she had,” she writes.

For College junior Rachel Dan, this poem was particularly striking.

“[Pagel] read a poem about a woman on a train who’d performed a heroic, life-saving act,” Dan wrote in an email to the Review. “The poem danced around the mysterious act without ever [describing] exactly what it was, leaving the [listener] free to wonder.”

In addition to her signature detached style, the many explorations of gender in Pagel’s poetry reflect a nuanced understanding of womanhood, both Gothic and modern. In “Obey,” Pagel writes, “They won’t say won’t say won’t / smile once in a while—told / to all the time—a dispatch / illegible from the outside so many / women involved say for the story / so many more dissolved say for / the odds O love this isn’t / about us.”

Pagel’s extensive research into Gothic tradition comes to the forefront in poems like this one, where she highlights the experiences of women in Gothic literature who were written out, killed off or locked away for the sake of the narrative.

“I started to pay attention to the women’s roles in [these old Gothic novels], and how sometimes alarmingly dismissed they were, or condescended to, [in contrast to] the other characters who were really vibrant and funny,” Pagel said.

The last poem that Pagel read, “Lakeview Cemetery,” used her facility with the language and rituals of death as well has her familiarity with the city of Cleveland to draw out larger political and social events.

“A sign in the crypt / keeper’s window reads FREE CLEAN FILL / DIRT Rockefeller’s buried here where’s Tamir,” she writes.

“I think that all poets are political,” Pagel said. “I think you can’t help but to be. I think that if you are writing about your contemporary life or experience in any way, the political is going to show up.”

For McCrae, poetry readings like Pagel’s are critical to raising political consciousness, even when the work does not specifically address topics such as police violence, global warming and feminism as Pagel’s does.

“Even not explicitly political art helps you become engaged in what is happening around you in a political sense, simply because it helps you think better, heightens your perceptions, and it helps the mind to be more curious,” McCrae said. “I think, especially in times when it is more than usually important for one to pay attention to politics and to what is going on in the world … poetry readings are a good facilitator of awareness.”