Solve for Desire
A debut collection of poems that finds fertile ground in the unknown degree of intimacy, the mysterious and intense relationship, between siblings Georg and Grete Trakl.
Georg Trakl is one of the most celebrated poets of the early twentieth century. Less is known about his sister, Grete: also gifted, also addicted to drugs, and dead by her own hand three years after Georg’s overdose. But in Solve for Desire—selected by Srikanth Reddy as the winner of the 2017 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry—Caitlin Bailey summons Grete from the shadows. At once sensual and acidic, obsessive and bereft, the Grete of these poems is a fairy-tale sister leaving “missives dropped around the city, crumbs / for your ghost.”
Can one person be addicted to another? Can two souls be twinned, and where does that leave the physical? How do we solve for desire when the object we adore disappears—and how does the poet solve and resolve the past, its wounds and its absences? “Each time I write your name,” Bailey writes, “a key / turns somewhere in a lock.” Like the “perfect red burst” of poppies and of blood, these poems are a blooming, keening exploration of desire between brother and sister, poet and subject, the living and the dead.
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Praise and Prizes
“The speaker of Solve for Desire inserts herself into a sad historical equation—Georg and Grete Trakl’s tragic story of trauma, addiction, and suicide—and discovers, through the passage of grief into wonder, an endlessly variable self. ‘Perhaps I was a magpie, a songbird. / Perhaps all burden and roar.’ Is this Grete speaking from the grave, or is it anyone who’s lost a brother, or struggled with dependence, or made music from a broken heart’s ‘perfect red burst’? Solve for Desire is the work of a poet who sings, boldly, across the distances between us. ‘I am not afraid of any edge.’”
“One of poetry’s most glorious challenges since its very beginnings—think Sappho—has been to try to ‘solve for desire.’ Caitlin Bailey’s book confronts this sacred task both head on and obliquely. These poems are about and to all of us: the desperation and the glory of desire are both fully present, as well as its underlying mystery. This is a beautiful and important book, absolutely original and deeply courageous.”
“In these imagined letters of musical prodigy Grete Trakl to her brother, Austrian poet Georg Trakl, Caitlin Bailey juxtaposes anguished desire with ravishing grief, a charged inner life with the outer world of the early twentieth century. Bailey’s imagination and lyricism are astonishing: ‘What I would give to be the poppy or else / the black horse, veins laid out like a map / you’d just unfolded . . . The space between our bodies a constellation / they haven’t named yet.’ She sings in a voice of dark time, part solace, part warning perhaps: ‘It was necessary to become cold. To forget the lives / we’d dreamed of. The days were taut and full of smoke. / Our pockets were mostly empty. We practiced crawling / through progressively smaller holes . . . Every day prepared us / for the next explosion.’”
“Caitlin Bailey pierces the surface of our daily world to expose the real real world of private desire and restraint, in writing that is incantatory and archetypal, at times recalling the Psalms of lament—ancient, strange, and true. These poems make clear that desire heightens perception as much as any drug. ‘I wonder / what it would have felt like to have a choice, to choose love, / to hold anything with both hands. It’s taken me this long / to say I want I want I want,’ Bailey writes. All of us have felt some form of impossible wanting, ‘a tantrum made palatable / only by its alternative,’ but few poets have conveyed the experience as hauntingly. I want to read this book over and over. Caitlin Bailey is a new talent and an old soul.”
“In Solve for Desire, Caitlin Bailey has constructed a world the size of a room | the size of a dream. There, she tries obsessively in image and language to work out the was and might-have-been of the pianist Grete Trakl and her brother Georg. The poems are tethered and crowded and sometimes as uncomfortable as a mouth with too many teeth. Do you remember going to a matinee at a movie theater as a child? It is that kind of hidden room | hidden dream. On exiting, I looked at the world through its scrim.”
“In Solve for Desire, Caitlin Bailey attends to the lives of the German modernist poet Georg Trakl and his sister, Grete, with tremendous insight, sympathy, and skill. But this book does something more: Bailey’s gift for balancing lyric intensity with narrative inquiry reveals a major new talent.”