“To be of this world & no other”: A Review of Ariana Reines’s ‘A Sand Book’


Maybe it’s appropriate, in a review of a book largely about apocalypse, to start at the end. “MOSAIC,” the last of the twelve sections of Ariana Reines’s extraordinary new collection, A Sand Book (Tin House Books), consists of a series of messages the poet received on the streets of Manhattan in October 2014. Like many of the poems in Reines’s previous collection, Mercury, “MOSAIC” is written in all capitals. The text is presented as white on black paper. “The words,” Reines states in the afterword to the section, “aren’t mine.” They seem to come from the sun, whose warmth envelops Reines, drawing her into a state of rapture. She describes the words of the poem as

entering me through the part of my head I sometimes call “my antenna,” where my first white hairs grow, where my hair fell out while my mother was incarcerated on Riker’s Island, & where, when a truck drove into me near Leogane, Haiti in 2010 I developed a bump, even though by all accounts it seemed I should have died.

Reines begins taking dictation from a spiritual source. The result is a guidebook to existence, a gnostic gospel, composed by a creator calling out to her from its exile. “‘GOD’ DOESN’T DIE,” the sun tells Reines, “HE’S JUST NOT THE ONLY GOD IN THE UNIVERSE.”

The god that looms over the majority of A Sand Book is not the author of “MOSAIC.” Reines evokes that god in the notes to “MOSAIC,” with a verse from Psalms. “For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” Those nineteen words encapsulate A Sand Book, which is, among many other things, a reckoning with the sadistic powers which scorch the earth.


Reines begins A Sand Book with an epigraph from the great Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan: “NO MORE SAND ART, no sand book, no masters.” Reines has referred to Celan before; in her book-length poem Cœur de Lion, she invokes his line, “The world is gone.” That line could also serve as an epigraph to A Sand Book. Reines, like Celan, writes in an apocalyptic mode. At times in A Sand Book, Reines echoes Celan’s rhythms and repetitions, as in this section of the long poem “THURSDAY”:

At the edge of my mouth I am an old man
At the front of my mouth I am a girl
I bite down on a horse tooth with my yellow rat’s teeth
Mild tooth of milk
Wild tooth of wolves
At the edge of my mouth I am an old man
At the front of my mouth I am a girl
Black n Mild like a cigar in a jar
Like a Cinderella made entirely of hair

For both Reines and Celan, a sand book is one that consists of chaos, estrangement, dissonance, the impossibility of spiritual fulfillment. What alchemy was to Mercury–a prevailing leitmotif, a map to the poems’ territories–desertification is to A Sand Book. Reines addresses the transformation of the natural world into a desert on both a literal, ecological level and a personal, spiritual one. In one poem she refers to “grey paste, grey wastes, grey clay filling up the places where guts & light used to be,” in another, she laments

Sediment of our relations
Now spun to so fine a mesh

Even dust cannot pass through it

As the sections of A Sand Book unfold, Reines extends, in a voice often deranged by grief and hopelessness, the metaphor of sand-as-chaos to include Hurricane Sandy, the murder of Sandra Bland, and the Sand Fire of 2016, as well as school shootings, a culture calloused by cheap online discourse, and Trump–an archon of an abandoned world.

Conversely, moisture, whether taking the form of water, tears, or blood, serves as a persistent metaphor for creativity, fecundity, and life. In “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” water becomes the necessary corrective to sand, undoing its effects:

after the rain hit
the creosote the sun
hit it & a fragrance
wild & sweet was hitting
me, a springtime
sensation of rising seed
confusing the seasons
undoing the doom [. . .]

Later in that poem, Reines describes “pyramidal mandarins” at a stand in Buenos Aires. Stacks of fruit and vegetables appear over and over in A Sand Book, and Reines’s delight in them is infectious. Water, fruit, “the icy fields / Glassy green like the innards of a computer”–these images of fertility provide hope and comfort in the barren psychic landscape that dominates A Sand Book.


In “Report,” Reines writes

Well what kind
Of poet were you the people
In power demanded to know
In so many worlds. An around-
The-world poet I guess.

It’s not an exaggeration; the poems in A Sand Book are “set” all over the world: in Scotland, Greece, France, Russia, South America, the deserts of the Southwest, the streets of New York. Travel seems to constitute a mission for Reines. Like the filmmaker Chris Marker, who in Sans Soleil wrote of Tokyo in the 1980s, “I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations,” Reines wanders what she refers to as the “holographic / Universe we’re living in,” parting the veil, drawing nourishment from the real. With a joyous diction, she writes

This is it
This is the lordly wonder
What makes my mouth water
To see this world
To be of this world & no other
To know a few of its customs

The world may be a desert, whose physical appearance is beginning to match its spiritual condition, but Reines’s poetry reminds the reader that there are oases everywhere, “human places”:

I forgot                       
How much I love human places
Courthouses & hospitals
Gas stations & rest
Stops in the wee hours
New York in the dark when somebody’s
Crying into their phone
People are naked

The Celan line Reines quotes in Cœur de Lion continues: “The world is gone, I must carry you.” A Sand Book is written in the same spirit. By baring so much of herself in these poems (and despite its size, scope, and difficulty, A Sand Book may be Reines’s most personal book to date) Reines presents herself to the reader as a guide to spiritual and societal chaos, an ally in the struggle against both.


“What do you do with someone like Ariana Reines right now?” the poet Eileen Myles asks in an interview in The Paris Review, in the midst of a discussion about the relationship of contemporary poets to fame, and to splendor. “I’m / Not anybody famous,” Reines tells a Russian woman in A Sand Book, but nevertheless there’s an easy answer to Myles’s question. What do you do with someone like Ariana Reines right now? Read her. Read her for the power of her vision, and for her willingness to look at tragedy, whether personal or planetary, head-on. As the planet grows hotter, as civilization becomes increasingly brutal, banal, and irreal, a voice as powerful as Reines’s is too valuable to neglect. A Sand Book is a necessary guide to a future rapidly becoming the present, a map of the desert we all have to navigate.


Michael J. Emmons

Michael J. Emmons is a writer and art house cinema programmer in Missoula, MT.

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