Twice told BY Caryl Pagel
H_nGM_N books, 2014; 102 PP
REVIEWED BY JoAnna Novak
As a child, I used to take great pleasure in hearing the title of a movie repurposed into script dialogue. I don't know if I expected age (or just adulthood) to melt away this pleasure, but it hasn't. If anything, when Catherine O'Hara (Mrs. McCallister) blurts that Macaulay Culkin (KEVIN!) has, indeed, been left "home alone,” these days I simultaneously start tingling, grinning, and blubbering.
Twice Told, the second collection of poetry by Caryl Pagel, presents its title in "Rumors," the fourth poem in the book. That poem is one of my favorites; here's the opening:
You are telling the story You
are telling the story again Twice
and I'll stop short to allow you your own Home Alone moment with the book.
I single out these lines, though, to think about what happens with repetitions, specifically the repetition of a title. There's a great old noir, super hard-boiled, called Dead on Arrival. In the last scene, a police officer stamps a report D.O.A. "Mark him Dead On Arrival," the officer says, gruffly, alerting viewers to what we've already been told three times—and, of course, shown once.
Pagel's poems are interested in that reverberation: what happens when a story, legend, rumor, rule, or definition is repeated? What happens when its echoes haunt a person’s life? There’s something uncomfortable about being told something twice, and Pagel capitalizes on the creepy side of the Rudyard Kipling title she amputates. In Pagel’s work, the retelling (the second poem , "Telephone," had me thinking of the party game, an exercise in the perversion of retransmission), is a chance to glance at the in-betweens, the gulf between waking and dreaming, life and death.
Appropriately, many of these poems fancy the punctuation of pause, like dashes and colons. Many poems also favor—and execute expertly—the caesura. "Rumors" is one. Pagel's caesura—visually rendered by a gap which lengthens her otherwise brief lines—is a pause, a pulse, a ellipsis, a bleeding of voices and versions, a scabbing over of narratives and sentences.
In Twice Told, Pagel's diction is ambiguous, at times assonance-heavy and rhyme-coy, peppered with exoticisms from the Wild West and Nebraska. While her language allows many poems to inhabit dreamy, filmic, even folklorish narrative spaces, I couldn't help longing for less of that openness. The stories the speaker tells or retells deserve a stab at specificity.