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Chapbook Review: Ashley Toliver's Ideal Machine

Ashley Toliver Ideal Machine Poor Claudia, 2014 Hand sewn, $10

What I actually want to tell you is that I like this book. You should buy it and read it. The poems are beautifully made and surprising. The sequence includes illustrations that complement the poems' image-making. The whole thing makes me feel feelings. But in case my personal recommendation doesn’t carry much weight and you want to know a little more about the book, it seems only fair to tell you that, too.

In a series of poems and illustrations, Ideal Machine performs a dissection of the body. The success of this sequence comes from the way it creates resonances across bodied-ness and consciousness. Toliver’s speaker sees moth’s wings in the shapes of bones, sees the optic nerve as a penny “tilled wide/ against the tracks.” These image-driven phenomenological connections raise the stakes of her exploration by creating a universe of connections. Nothing is discrete; everything is relevant.

At times, the poems evoke Dickinson. The internal is exposed, and the external is subsumed into the world of the mind. But Toliver’s poems also use the meat of the body, the action of the mind, and the phenomena of the biological world to consider love, motherhood, and mortality.

The lasting gift of these poems comes from the way their images transform the biological into the spiritual. For example:

at night the room fills with children each one of them ours they flame around in their gene pools

live instruments tuned shivering

Ultimately, the sequence considers bodied consciousness and impermanence with deeply affecting results. In particular, the closing poem “dear tiny icicle” invites the reader to consider the effect on us of what has “barely existed though/ enough:”

I lean out over the bridge let you fall and burst I place the nickel in your mewling mouth don’t remove it

There are no platitudes or cheap gestures at emotion here; Toliver earns the reader’s emotion through her ongoing interrogation. This is what I mean when I say these poems makes me feel feelings and I like them. I hope you’ll read them, too.


Kathy Goodkin's poems have recently appeared in Banango Street, Denver Quarterly, Redivider, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University. Kathy lives in Denver, where she serves as co-director and facilitator for Hoist Point Writing, an organization that supports creative writing in prisons.

#Reviews #Chapbooks #Poetry

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