JULIA KOETS'S PINE
Longing for a Better Life: A Review of Julia Koets's Pine by Brady Alexander
Another review, another queer work about sensuality, the biosphere, and God. It speaks to the scale of religious trauma, the fears and pleasures postmodernity invokes, and the inconquerability of love. And I’m surprised each time I get to read these works, review them. There’s always something fresh in front of me. Something beautiful and vivid. Something so in love with life it makes you want to go out and touch grass.
So it is with Pine, the new collection from Julia Koets, published by Southern Indiana Review Press, winner of the Michael Waters Poetry Prize. Koets’s other work includes Hold Like Owls, (University of South Carolina Press) winner of the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize, and The Rib Joint (Red Hen Press), winner of the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Book. Her other work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Indiana Review, Nimrod, The Los Angeles Review, Carolina Quarterly, Portland Review, and, of course, Miracle Monocle. It’s hardly a coincidence that Pine turned out so potent, given this resumé.
Pine tells the story of two girls, in secret love, deep in the south. Their longing spans across each page, each situation showcasing a different facet of their hidden trysts: the fallout of our speaker telling a boy she doesn’t like him in “The Boathouse,” the weightlessness and pressure that she feels when she falls so, so hard in “Eros as Oxygen Mask,” the lengths that they must go to just to be with one another in “Field Notes on Loving a Girl in Secret.” There’s so much that works here—and works beautifully.
There's an academic quality to much of this book, as well, and as a queer ecology, it works. “If Desire is Always Desire for Recognition” quotes queer titan Judith Butler, who remarks upon Hegel’s work. I can think of few things less sexy than Hegel, but it is in the poem’s sense of place, its secret love, and its viridity (catching ghost crabs on the beach at night) that these headier ideas take flesh. In specific experience do we find ourselves recognized and eager to recognize. In much of the collection, the ecology is subtle: the change of seasons, the dyer’s rocket used in “Vernal Equinox,” the names of birds in “Nightjar Opening.” Sometimes, though, it all takes center stage, as in “The Breakers,” for example, where the girls go to the beach, where moon jellies in thousands wash ashore: “Your skin welts pink. The shore / iridescent with moons. The ocean breathes & / we swim against the pull of its lungs.” The sublime command of language aside, it soars thematically. I can think of many queer animals. All creation is at least a little queer. There are no limits to the ocean or the sky, and animals do not shame sex. But the moon jelly—“soft bodies,” radial without a start or end, translucent, numerous, selene—is very apt for the gentle and expansive world of queerness that Pine longs for.
The collection’s namesake, “Pine,” is lovely, might I add. Set up as a list of definitions, it seems to be the maxims of the collection all in confluence together: the south, the sacred, longing, love, the pains of one’s desires, queerness, ecology, and, my favorite part of it: that you will always be yourself regardless of environment, that you will weather winters, that you’ll bloom: “8. pagan symbol of fertility. ‘[Pine Cones], the sexual organs of the trees, remained / green even in the middle of winter.’”
On the subject of the sacred, let’s get into how “Pine” implements it. Always, there’s a love for nature, which is sacred. And, at many times, there is an equal flight from religion (which is often sacred too). The girls retreat into the wilds countless times to pursue one another. It all makes for a tender story, watching the girls ache so much. Though, I feel that the use of religion here would benefit from greater specificity, and from more frequent moments of direct engagement. Maybe that’s wanting the collection to be something that it’s not, wanting it to shift focus. After all, growing up a Baptist in Kentucky, evangelical religion is the norm. It’s ambient, permeating every interaction. You only think about it, question it, or bring awareness to it when you get moments outside it. “Put the fear of God within you” is a turn of phrase for good reason: in many places, here especially, the fear of God is very real. It's the default feeling many have with God, regardless of the distance. But, there is a kind of engagement with religion here, as in “Eros as Fish,” which reframes Jesus feeding the 5000+, in “Eros as Eyeglasses,” which explains that “we were earnest in our view / of god, of who we could and couldn’t see,” and “Antlery,” which croons: “Fear made us biblical, animal, unseeded.” Yet, these moments are few and far between. It feels like the analysis is incomplete. And the constant, chronic threat religion poses to the girls being found out would be heightened if we saw some more direct examples of these threats, like how the people of these communities perceive queer love and sexuality. As it is, the work seems non-committal in this aspect, unwilling to really grapple with that world.
The collection truly shines in the brief moments when the speaker wrestles with her own faith, especially what it has taught and mis-taught her. That’s the case in “Apple Season.” There, the girls go upcountry in fall to go pick apples. There, they’re free of “a city / so small and southern… worried our bodies / might set off an alarm, a flare in the dark, / open field behind her place.” They come upon the orchard, doubting their parents and the razing heat of Sodom and Gomorrah, doubting Adam, doubting Eve, imagining themselves as these first lovers, consuming the apple’s flesh again, again, again. It’s a moment of exhilarating liberation, sharply contrasting with the stifling world so many of the poems take place in. I devoured this one when I read it. I want more.
Pine’s kryptonite, it seems, is its ambition. It can’t fully develop everything, but that’s because there’s so much going on. And, as a love story morose with passion, it succeeds with flying colors. It’d be wrong to end with my complaints when there’s so much to praise. With that being the case, I want to mention “Elegy for Selenography.” It is, as the poem describes, “magnificent desolation,” full to bursting with its longing. There’s poetry, there’s science, and vastness in the scale of its desire. It’s a story of the girls, a moment where they must consider planning their affections so to not risk getting caught. They want to go skinny dipping. Maybe they decide to. They’re terrified to be found out, though. Here’s the way it ends: “no one in sight. In the best of worlds, / which isn’t our world, I imagine / how we dive into Mare Cognitum, / sea where all becomes known.”
To be known. To be received. To be accepted. To be free. These are the heart and soul of longing. This is what we pine for as queer children. May we give ourselves these things when we’re adults. May we give our own children the best of worlds, and may it be our world. Amen.