Caylin Capra-Thomas’s debut poetry collection Iguana, Iguana is a lucid and earnest account of the narrator as she navigates the changing landscapes of her life. Central to this journey is her quest for self-knowledge, as the narrator archives and is haunted by her former selves.
Capra-Thomas’s ability to describe small moments in lush, evocative imagery nourishes the philosophical facet of her poems, enabling their enormous potency. In “Supermassive,” she uses imagery of the commonplace to stress the intimate relationship between mundanity and existential consciousness: “I stood at the sink and became a few minutes older,” she writes. “Alive before that moment, alive through the dishes, / then I just kept on with it, left the wet sponge weeping / soap into the drain…” She continues, writing that she “sent Emma a message / with a picture of my face smushed up, / ate grapes and thought about the three possible fates of the universe.” Her juxtaposition of mundane action and grandiose philosophical thought suggests that knowledge about the world does not come through the rare modernist epiphany—or what Wordsworth calls “spots of time”—but instead through moments that are ostensibly undeserving of poetic attention.
In other poems, Capra-Thomas’s choice for specificity seems odd, the privacy of the narrator’s life carelessly shed. In “Cassiopeia,” Capra-Thomas writes that her grandmother’s “once beloved face becomes unfamiliar, the moustache greasier…” Her brother “is doing well because you have adjusted / your definition of well.” Meanwhile, her “mother sends a card / with some money in it, says her husband is dying / so slowly it seems fine…” This sudden revelation of the narrator’s life takes Iguana, Iguana’s tone in a darker direction, with nothing comparable included in the collection’s first part. Shortly after, Capra-Thomas pulls the reader into the narrator’s life even more closely, describing details of “another version [of her life]” where “Jeff gets new teeth, and Kristina / replaces the money before she gets caught…Hillary is at peace with her body and doesn’t / chew ice chips for warmth.” Whether fictionalized or not, the mention of specific names imbues the collection with an uncomfortable proximity at times, that the reader had little opportunity to approach and consent considering the comparative mildedness of its previous poems. This is not meant to be a criticism: I am awed by Capra-Thomas’s ability to communicate such specific emotions with accuracy, and I believe that these rare moments of worldly heaviness complement the larger intellectual concerns of the collection quite well.
As mentioned before, much of the collection details Capra Thomas’s former selves, and her relationship to the people that she used to be in her past. While literature oftens demands that you imagine an eternally-present narrator, you are never sure which perspective you are reading in Iguana, Iguana. Put differently, you are never really sure what time it is. Are we listening to a narrator’s real-time ruminations, or simply defunct echoes of the past?
Capra-Thomas explicitly references these past selves throughout the collection. In “We Were Younger Then,” she writes: “We were not at home in ourselves. We slept / in the park after missing the ferry.” She then elaborates that:
“…Every year, the younger self
where we emerge, fizzy-headed, a little more
settled, our hearts less burned, our debts
unpayable. What do these dead regret?
They still call us from the coat closet,
from the park bench and the empty ferry:
Get up. get up, get up.”
In the poem, Capra-Thomas’s clever use of “we” refers not just to her past selves, who have abandoned the body they did not feel at home at, but also the self that emerges in “today’s waters.” While the past self is no longer here, Capra-Thomas argues, it remains an indelible part of our present. Moreover, she suggests that though our current self is “more settled” and less “burned,” it is only a matter of time before that self becomes restless in our body, unknowable to us forever.
Similar to but not the same as the mortality of the body, the inevitable termination of the self introduces the struggle between the narrator and the rest of the world. The narrator’s futile actions at self-communication and self-immortalization are both foiled by and at the whims of everything else in existence. In “Whiteout,” Capra-Thomas writes that “once, I wrote my name [in the snow], deep / in its body. This is how it found me / Knew what to call me…I stand under it and let it wipe me / clean from this world.” The snow’s ability to “call” the narrator and “wipe [her] clean from this world” reveals its power to bestow and abolish meaning from the narrator’s actions at will: hence, the narrator’s writing of her name is less an assertion of agency than her abdication of it to nature.
In the same poem, the narrator predicts that “…One day, a young man / with smooth hands and a cloudy eye will near / your river’s edge. He will find you. Pluck you. He will plop you into his mouth / and swallow you, because this, poor dreamer, is the world.” This scene occurs after the aforementioned river erodes the narrator’s self “at the pace of centuries…[into] a small pebble.” Bereft of freedom, the narrator’s erosion by nature leaves her susceptible to a certain kind of gendered violence. The erotic connotations that come from being “pluck[ed,” “plop[ped,” and “swallow[ed]” juxtapose the majestic descriptions of nature’s erasure and erosion. The decision to compare these instances of power interests me; however, this portrayal of gender difference was never fleshed out more, to my disappointment.
Consequently, the narrator mourns her essential impotence. Returning to the theme of former selves, much of her sadness comes from the impermanence of both her body and soul. In “Cedar Key,” she writes that “…Meanwhile, the sand gives over to forms and remains, somehow / itself. I want to be shaped and unshaped like that. But also / to stay firm like the oyster shells I pull from the surface.” In an attempt to ignore her powerlessness, she writes in “Better Homes and Gardens” that you should “pretend the earth is yours, like you bought it / outright, no laways, no loans. Like it isn’t just / waiting to open, reclaim you. Like it doesn’t / know already how and when it will.” For the narrator, the belief that individualism is meaningful, and indeed that it is consequential, is futile. Time and time again, we see the individual fractured: fractured by nature; fractured by other people; and, most of all, fractured by the narrator’s former selves.
However, there are glimmers of optimism and agency in Iguana, Iguana that offer relief, and perhaps redemption, from a life led in misery. For Capra-Thomas, salvation is found in knowledge: not of self-knowledge, but in the knowledge that you have no self. After a night of reflecting on the past, the narrator states that “but today I thought, / Isn’t it something—to see for once what was coming / until it overcame me, until I was overcome.” In the next poem, “Crystal Ball,” the narrator writes: “There you are, I say / to the world / of things / that haven’t happened/ yet. Knowing / the future is easy. / We don’t exist / there. I think that / about covers it.”
Realizing your helplessness against nature, and your finiteness in this world, is a dynamic mode of self-assertion upon which a long-lasting identity can be based. Later on in “Cedar Key,” the narrator observes that “When the women / loosen themselves from the shore, they are different. They don’t know it…When they leave I am different. / They don’t know me.” The narrator’s higher perspective, which understands and spoors the fleeting nature of the self, offers a means of grounding oneself in instability. Moreover, it also liberates the narrator by protecting her from the gaze of others: while writing her name in the snow allows it to “wipe her clean,” the narrator’s obscurity enables her to live safely on her own terms.
Although you lose almost everything in your life, something always remains. This message is at the heart of Iguana, Iguana: despite the suggestion that these poems are told from multiple perspectives, they still exist in one collection, under the name of one author. Perhaps the best line regarding this issue comes in the penultimate poem of the collection, “Present Conditional.” Capra-Thomas writes that “if something is broken within me, it is not / the most vital part.” While certain parts of herself may change, Capra-Thomas argues, it is the core that remains the same; it is the core that endures, even after corporeal death.
This is a strong debut collection that is dense, heart-felt, and rewarding. I recommend that readers consume the book at a slow pace, and commit to really experiencing her splendid verse. It is well worth the effort.