Review of Season of Subtraction by Michelle Reale

Season of Subtraction, by Michelle Reale
Bordighera Press, 2019
64 pages, $8.00 paper

Review by Tyler Robert Sheldon

Poet and Arcadia University professor Michelle Reale invests in the goings-on of ephemeral worlds, and in searching for the truths behind long-lost secrets. Her collection Season of Subtraction opens with a quote from Charles Wright that sets the tone for the prose poetry to come: “This is the season of subtraction / When what goes away is what stays.” Reale understands this idea well, that at times we can only grasp at the world, but retaining some memory of it we also keep a bit of its essence for ourselves. “Prologue,” this collection’s opening poem, speaks to how even when reaching in vain we might hold fast to more than we realize: “Someone / hands me a child . . . The little arms are well muscled. They stretch upward as / though already understanding what will be beyond their reach.” But perhaps, Reale seems to suggest, such understanding is enough, and can help this so far unknown child (and through it, the reader) keep what it needs of the future. 

Uncertainty is a pivotal emotion in “Eating Your Seed Corn,” where fear and doubt mix with possibility. “Desire, like a fist / down the throat,” Reale writes. “This is the coming to / the edge.” Here again something slips away and something stays—and time as an experience becomes not just ephemeral but also bifurcated, “a chamber in two stages: what exists now, in / this moment and whatever came before. The unlucky are destined to / never know.” Time becomes a kept gate of extreme experiential variance.   

Even for their ephemeral nature, the poems in Season of Subtraction are counterpointed by an interesting ballast. Every poem in this collection, as we’ve already discussed, is a prose poem, a form that imposes constraints on line length and sometimes tone by virtue of its paragraphesque structure. Some poems—like the aforementioned “Prologue” and the later “Recurrence”—function slightly beyond this capacity, but only insofar as a single line separates from the piece’s prose block. This structural decision generates the meditative effect of a haibun, that prose-and-haiku double threat we so often enjoy for it variance in shape and mood, and the poems that utilize such a structure offer something else as well. They turn, engendering the abrupt mood shift and wrapping-up one might more regularly associate with the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. Such separated endings lend further meaning—and sometimes further complication—to these already rich pieces.

The poem “Recurrence” is shot through with surrealism, reminiscent of dreamscapes by crafted poets like Dalton Day. It begins, “You are encased in ice. You are barefoot and blue, in snow. For variation / you are hunched and clinging to a high wall so smooth, you have / nothing to hold onto.” These fantastical situations are surely more metaphoric than literal, but they highlight how emotional straits can literally lock an individual away from their agency. “Recurrence” witnesses moments of recursion that also speak to characters’ emotional states: “for variation you are surrounded by water, wet / and hunched, hugging your own knees as if giving birth to yourself.” This notion of variation, mentioned several times throughout the piece, suggests a flattening of the ice-bound character’s plight, or else a nod to how the world never discriminates when teaching its hard lessons. 

In the later poem “Derive,” the narrator recounts, “I reach into my throat and pull / forth all my useless lamentations . . . An ocean away someone approaches deep / function the closer they are to death.” These lines suggest becoming a part of the world again is our ultimate purpose—and thus, paradoxically, that our laments are not so useless after all. This poem also speaks directly to the reader in a fashion unorthodox heretofore. It breaks with the prose poem form, lineating some words and phrases individually, and it also addresses the reader directly as the narrator beseeches a so-far unquantified “you.” The speaker pleads, “Come to us. // Come to us. // And you came.” This final piece reveals the prolonged, determined purpose of these poems: a recounting of Reale’s search for her father’s half-sister. When Reale speaks in this book’s afterword of needing to find this long-lost family member, she asserts that she “wanted to bring her ‘home,’ literally and figuratively.” Season of Subtraction—written, as Reale notes, after she found her—serves as a buoying force of recognition and reconciliation, a potent reminder that “[i]t is never too late for anything.”

Readers can purchase Season of Subtraction from Bordighera Press, as well as online and at regional and national booksellers.


TYLER ROBERT SHELDON is the author of five poetry collections including Driving Together (Meadowlark Books, 2018) and Consolation Prize (Finishing Line Press, 2018). He is Editor-in-Chief of MockingHeart Review, and his poetry, fiction, artwork, and criticism have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, The Tulane Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and other venues. A Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of the Charles E. Walton Essay Award, he earned his MFA at McNeese State University. Sheldon is currently a PhD student in English at Louisiana State University. He lives in Baton Rouge. View his work at TylerRobertSheldon.com.