Claire Åkebrand’s debut poetry collection, What was Left of the Stars (2017, Serpent Club Press), opens a door to the natural world and possibility. I’ve struggled to find a way to review this stunning book. I’ll do my best to invite you, the reader and critic, in. For starters, I recommend setting aside a quiet afternoon and your favorite chair. Then prepare yourself for lush beauty to greet you in this pocket-sized gem.
When I asked Claire about the foundation of this collection, she shared her literary influences, including (in her words), “Keats! Wallace Stevens, Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore (for her animal poems), Proust, Yasunari Kawabata, and obviously that Shakespeare guy.” No doubt being a student of good literature pays off. In this book she nods to Rilke, Pound, Tranströmer, Celan, and Södergran. In so doing, she skillfully asserts her own poet-vision with a voice that is both timeless and accessible.
Åkebrand has a command of English that many native speakers and writers strive to obtain. She is trilingual, fluent in Swedish, German, and English. It’s no surprise, then, that during poetic dry spells she stays sharp by translating. She states, “Translating someone you admire brings a deeper level of intimacy with that writing—it’s like being invited backstage to discover the behind-the-scenes workings, the props, the scaffolding, all the technical details of the work, which is all very useful for your own writing.” Amen.
This collection builds on her strengths: a foundation in excellent poets, attention to language, and economy of line. Much of the book’s beginning focuses on biblical symbols — Genesis, gardens, Adam and Eve. These poems form act one, a warm up for what follows. My favorite in this section is the poem, “House” (p. 7). It offers a snapshot of childhood and some delicious bits such as, “The sky broke through in some places/ like rumors of adulthood, with sun slivers/ through the branches’ dark sieve.” The writing is dense and compacted yet expansive with possibility.
As we move into the second part of the book, Åkebrand continues to call nature to do her bidding. Swallows, heaven, violets, owls, pollen, and sky all share her inner eye. The poem, “A Fear of Words: After Rilke,” touches lightly on the mundane (a dog, a house), then moves deep into Rilke territory with the last striking stanza, “How I covet that humming within things./ Everything we touch/ covers and falls silent.” Such lines feel like walking through a haunted reverie, echoing passages of Rilke’s own The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It is deft and masterful writing, indeed.
Reading on, a few things become apparent. The first, that this collection does not, in any way, read like a novice poet’s first chapbook. Secondly, you begin to thrill alongside Åkebrand for the aching beauty of images and questions that cleverly begin, end, or bolster up the middle of a poem. Thirdly, that as you continue reading, your sense of melancholic wonder grows.
The same year Åkebrand published this collection, she also published the fiction novel, The Field is White (2017, Kernpunkt Press). In so doing, she proves a range and breadth that is not typical among poets. But she is no typical writer. At present she’s working on a post-apocalyptic, subaqueous young adult novel and a second book of poetry. She’s also starting a short story collection.
Get your copy of What was Left of the Stars today. You will, no doubt, find yourself thanking Åkebrand for the journey.
Reviewed by: Terresa Wellborn
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