The landscape of the past two years is unfamiliar. The 20s aren’t a place to feel at home. Between the global pandemic and conflicts near and far, life has felt anything but stable. This is where Taylor Steele’s Drowning in Light enters the scene, perhaps serendipitously. Full of longing for comfort and permanence, Drowning in Light attempts to ground itself through words, and in doing so creates captivating spaces to explore displacement.
The first poem in Steele’s collection, “i am without certain origin,” sets the tone for the rest of the book. In this poem, the speaker aches for a home. The poem begins boldly, with the speaker wanting “to bite into red and feel / its juice rush down my throat / like a wave claiming the shore; to crash, saying: mine, mine.” We learn the speaker’s mother is from an island, the speaker was born in the Bronx but lives in Brooklyn, and she goes on to say:
all my dancing is awkward; feet aching to root
spine bending around the beat like opposed magnetic forces––
i’m sorry, i know this is all so tired.
it’s just that when I die, i have nowhere to be buried.
The idea of a body unable to find belonging in any soil is a very strong image. I can’t help but think that if red could be tangible, so too would the speaker’s desire to crash into a shore and claim it for her own.
The connections between poems early on in this collection are seamless, as the themes find a center in memories of a fragmented past and present. In “i have never known home,” home is not a safe space – it is a space where the stove is left on, a space with bedbugs, death. The speaker reflects this darkness at the end, questioning, “who forgot no one / is trying to make it / out alive?” This poem is similar to others in the collection in that it asks more questions than it answers. In this way, it reflects real life.
Upon making it to (part one of) the titular poem, “Drowning in Light, pt. I” I was struck by the change from the lowercase personal pronoun ‘i,’ to the standardized capitalized version, as the narrator watches a lightning storm with her drunk father. She reflects, “I wonder if he only watched lightning with me to make / sure it wasn’t me setting the world to ruins.” It’s as though the narrator is trying to explore their own identity not only through the varied styles of ‘I,’ but also through seeing herself through the lens of her father.
Moving on, it seems there is a response to the changing of the personal pronoun in the intriguingly long-titled poem, “My therapist attempts to get me to unpack the meaning behind my fear of love during our first appointment, which is in the middle of a heat wave, and I, against better judgement, wax poetic.” The poem begins, “Some days are so hot, I can’t be bothered by semantics, Doc, / and let grammar, too, go unremembered for an extra breath when needed.” Farther into the poem the narrator goes one step further with the concept of letting go of rules:
Even though some days are so hot they seem to defy language altogether,
sometimes I wished that level of defiance for me––
to exist beyond what can be named and thus even be surreal, or––
but I am real
The narrator is searching for meaning in the self. The self, however, can be a lonely place, and in “A waking séance,” the narrator embraces this loneliness.
First loneliness is a “well-oiled machine” and then “wild…a wilderness.” When the narrator confesses, “I awake, tangled in the branches of my longing and know: / I’ve invented all the love I’ve ever known,” it’s as though she is inserting loneliness into memories. For the narrator, even the times she felt love become inventions. All her love was a lie, but she accepts this with a nihilistic outlook:
Loneliness be a soil now, too.
I alchemize it.
I lay me down to sleep in it.
And if my arms are already branches,
let Loneliness be the season they bloom.
In this speaker’s world, loneliness becomes a proper noun. A thing of beauty. A thing that will grow into its own season.
Later, we see the narrator is not only embracing loneliness but also pain. In “beneath the bruise is the name of the bruise,” the physical pain of a bruise becomes a metaphor for emotional pain. The form near the end of the poem reflects a mind gone fractal:
i am a wild
shattering now did you know?
i touch, and, though i see no
blood, my hand stings.
While Steele utilizes a variety of forms throughout the collection, this fragmentation is mirrored only one other time – in “Drowning in Light pt. 2.” Part one titled “Light,” explores conscious knowledge. From names of flowers to growth and expansion. Part two is aptly named, “Shadow,” and it feels like an exploration of just that – the dark, subconscious part of the mind. The narrator begins with what they don’t know – “nuance” but they do know “hunger.” Life is seemingly a place to consume or be consumed.
The form continues to change in poems like “Ode to Lamictal,” a cause-and-effect prose poem that begins with an anticonvulsant and ends with the writing of a poem, and “Death in Many Parts,” a numbered prose poem where the experience of loss is threaded through thirteen parts. As I neared the end of the collection, I decided that Steele can make words flourish in any form. What did surprise me, was the poem “Where My Bitches At?”
The voice in most poems in this collection feels as though it is seeking answers, but in “Where My Bitches At?” the voice is not seeking. The voice is empowered. The narrator embodies the idea of strength in numbers, as though being surrounded by friends brings new life and an overabundance of confidence to her words. The rhythm of this poem is quick, the sounds snappier, the feeling almost aggressively playful, with the word “bitch” thrown around as both an insult and a term of endearment. The end captures this intensity:
what was that?
i dare you to say that shit to my face
only my bitches get to call me bitch”
After this fiery piece, the poems transition back to more reflective, aerial language.
The collection ends with “Drowning in Light pt. 3: Praise.” In this final poem, the narrator has made peace with themselves. “I woke up and didn’t wish I hadn’t” she says, later repeating three times, “I am not unloved because I feel unloved” as though it is a mantra providing the foundation for the hopeful tone of the poem. The poem delivers it’s promised praise in the last line:
Tonight, I will hold my hand to my chest,
feel the bassline of my aliveness
and sing along with a song that I’m always writing called
Thank you for being here.
In reaching the end of Drowning in Light, I felt as though I had taken a pilgrimage with the narrator. From aching for a home, to finally realizing a home in herself, the narrator finds a hard-earned and well-deserved self-love, and the reader finds a place of belonging – a place which many so desperately need in these times. Not only are the poems in this collection aching and beautiful, but the way they are woven together creates a modern-day hero’s journey that serves as a form of catharsis for all who explore these pages.
Amanda Rabaduex is a poet, writer, educator, Air Force veteran, and aspiring etymologist. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University, and she is the current poetry editor for River and South Review.