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Review | To See the Queen, Allison Seay

“If I am still enough I see Liliana, a figment.”

This first line from Allison Seay’s debut poetry collection, To See the Queen—winner of the 2012 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry and released by Persea Books last year—establishes immediately and acutely for the reader the tone and subject matter for the entire body of work which follows. There is a young woman, sometimes a girl. There is Liliana, an apparition, a figment of the woman’s mind, who appears to the woman throughout her childhood and into adulthood. There is stillness—the kind of stillness and silence which comes from a life lived cautiously and at the behest of others. This stillness, which comes not from fear but rather a lack of agency, is, as the speaker says in the opening poem “The Figment,” “one way of living: slipping off // into some indistinguishable state / of more and more snow.”

Interpreted a slightly different way, the opening line of Seay’s collection is perhaps more heartbreaking. Given the following added emphasis, “If I am still enough I see Liliana, a figment,” Seay’s opening line establishes another of the book’s primary themes—a young woman’s desire to be sufficient in the eyes of those she holds in an elevated position. These figures include the figment Liliana, God, her lover (an older man, with whom an affair is referenced), her husband in a doomed marriage, and, at times, simply her depression and sadness personified.

The aforementioned figures of power hold the poems’ speaker at once enraptured and horrified, spellbound and terribly broken. The presence of these individuals creates meaning for the speaker as much as their absence creates a profound sense of loneliness. In “Liliana in the High Grass”, the speaker says of this absence:

            To miss her is as the mute in terror,
            shrieking without sound.

            The missing is the most as I lie all day alone
            in the high grass on a white sheet

            long enough that when I rise
            there is a second body of me

            left like an effigy in the dark yard.

Again, in “Night Without Music,” Liliana’s absence weighs on the speaker. The speaker says, “when she is not near / the room darkens / the world is winter-killed.” As surely frightening as it may be for the speaker to witness these figments of her mind as real physical entities, this must make their absence and disappearance all the more frightening as well. In “Uneven Love,” the first poem in the collection to address romantic love, the speaker admits, “Mine will be a long life / feeling always a little ruined.” For sure, Seay’s speaker hates to love these characters, knows the impact they have made upon her perspective on the world, and therefore feels their absence acutely.

Often, the various figures of power are interchanged or conflated by the speaker. At times, the lover is the figment, God is the sadness, Liliana is the sadness or a dream or a fever or a physical woman or a painter who paints on the mind’s canvas. Capable of many forms and varying levels of power and ability, Liliana is held at the same level of influence as God, and it is this deification of the mind’s projections which ultimately leaves the speaker feeling even more helpless. Much like the “indistinguishable state / of more and more snow” found in the opening poem, the speaker’s identity is so fragile, so blank and undefined, and she depends upon these figures of power to impose a meaningful identity upon her. In “Room of Sleepwalking,” the speaker acknowledges this up font: “Liliana painted my sadness with a flue-blue streak / on the canvas where my brain would be.”

Structurally, To See the Queen has much to teach us. The book is divided into three sections, each with its own title and particular tone. The first section, “Liliana,” is dedicated to establishing the various relationships the poems will explore throughout the book, most centrally that with Liliana. Liliana is at first a scary but ultimately innocuous specter-like figure, but in “Liliana, the Lion” we see for the first time the total grip Liliana has over the speaker:

            A thing impossibly tame, Liliana is an animal calmed,
            her hair in knots, her eyes closed.
            And I am a child again, silent and sad
            in the rocking chair not rocking, the figment and me not talking.

Liliana has the ability to make the adult speaker feel immediately helpless, brought back to her childhood fearfulness, and by the end of the “Liliana” section, the reader feels as though they have seen this through the speaker’s eyes. The book’s second section, “Geography of God’s Undoing,” takes a turn away from Liliana and focuses on the secondary theme of romantic love, a love which alternates between a husband figure and an unspecified lover. These relationships, too, are fraught, and heartbreaking to see develop and ultimately end. In “Town of Unspeakable Things,” the speaker describes a day spent with the lover, “the face / of the life I thought I was missing,” and the realization that their efforts at being together were for naught:

            But our future was clear enough when I asked if you saw
            the clean aprons of those men

            (How much longer you think until they clean the fish?
            Did you see how white those aprons were? Did you see?)

            To which you said
            How much is it, then, you think you need?

In the book’s final section, “Room of the Queen’s Dreams,” Liliana returns, but the speaker’s approach to her is quite different. Liliana is often referred to as a queen, but her relationship with the speaker, now grown up, has changed. Liliana still permeates the poems in this final section, but she acts more as a friendly figure, one with whom the speaker has made some peace. Liliana is almost an accomplice, someone who provides for the speaker a kind of constancy. In the concluding poem, “None Such as She,” the speaker realizes that “I live on in hope // though for her to die inside me / is not what I want / not exactly.” Liliana’s existence is intrinsic to the speaker’s very existence. For one to exist without the other, the speaker must admit, is impossible and perhaps undesirable.

The poems in To See the Queen are sharp and clean in their delivery, personal and universal in their scope. The poems are brief—only three poems in the collection find their way on to a second page—but cutting in their brevity. In this way, Seay’s poems bring to mind Beth Bachmann’s Temper, and for the fresh light they shine on the psychology and sexuality of young women, they certainly make one think of Lauren Berry’s The Lifting Dress. Allison Seay shows us the moments when the powers which hold us captive become so attractive, as the speaker in “The Sadness” says, “God becomes a crystal song, a hymn / in the piano’s high octaves.” Indeed, the poems in To See the Queen form a series of crystal songs, shining, pure, and slightly mystical. But like viewing anything through a crystal glass, everything is morphed when seen through these poems—the world has changed, and Allison Seay is the perfect guide through our new and terrifyingly fascinating surroundings. 


Jim Whiteside holds degrees from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Vanderbilt University. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Cream City ReviewForklift, Ohiothe minnesota reviewNinth Letter, and Post Road, among others. Originally from Cookeville, Tennessee, he works as a barista and occasionally teaches in Greensboro, North Carolina.