"A living thing, loss has two ears," writes poet Nancy Krygowski. "[O]ne roves left: right: the other goes inside: listens to the names: Elias: Annette: Grace: teeth against teeth: stop it: begin again."
"This Loss, Any:" is more experimental than most of Krygowski's Velocity, forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press. But as the opener in this riveting first collection, it sets the tone: coolly composed verse giving eloquent voice to the raw emotions generated by wrenching experiences.
Krygowski's subject matter is heavy stuff: Her sister's death; criminal assualt; armed robbery; an emotionally devastated friend; breast cancer. It's a context in which "Dear Black Peach," a riff on the short life of fruit flies, seems a near-whimsical change of pace.
But while Velocity -- published as winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize for first books -- is often dark, it's not merely gloomy. Krygowski's darkness is both lightened by moments of grace and cut by shards of light that lead to emotional clarity ... even when they're reflected from the blade wielded by an assailant, as in "The Next Time I Was Robbed." The confrontation leads the poet, even as she's appealing in vain to her male companion, to flash on a failed relationship: "I couldn't know the pointed / shame of a woman who so wants / love, she's taken for money. / I was like a small town high school boy / who dreams only of joining the army."
Like all good poetry, Krygowski's is cliché-free, and carries the reader on unexpected journeys. "I Get Happy When I Shudder" finds the poet following a truckload of doomed beef cows, and reporting (fearlessly) how she imagines (inexplicably) "a college boy having sex / with a retarded girl / who is happy ... as she tugs at her nipples, raises her hips, / bats big cow lashes, and doesn't see / the stretched-out underwear / stuck on her foot."
The poems can be densely lyrical ("An iris shoot hoards a guarantee of serious purple") or harshly rhythmic: "Fear turns a heart / wafer thin. Not wanting / cuts a path not to good, but to the bad / stop of a white gloved hand, / wall of No, no."
But what's most impressive is the way in which Krygowski, a co-founder and co-director of the Gist Street Reading Series, evokes life's complexity and hard lessons. Most of the poems are told in the first person, but at once with deep feeling and devoid of sentimentality, as though she's in complete empathy with a protagonist whom she's also capable of observing with near-scientific detachment. "Control" burns with eroticism before proceeding to describe a date-rape; "I have trouble loving, / sometimes, what I love," she admits in "This Hardly Makes Sense."
"Bones never talk back," Krygowski writes in a poem about a phone call from her dead sister's teen-age daughter. Perhaps she's right. But in Velocity, a poet facing harsh realities proves wonderfully articulate.
Nancy Krygowski reads with Sherrie Flick and Sandee Gertz Umbach. Hemingway's Summer Poetry Series. 8 p.m. Tue., July 31. Hemingway's, 3911 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Free. 412-481-POEM