BY SEBASTIAN BITTICKS
How does living alongside differ from living together? This question animates poet Elise Paschen’s newest collection, The Nightlife, a rich and generous exploration of life within, and among, Chicago’s Near North Side.
A poet of community, Paschen writes from within a network of friends and fellow writers, a fact attested to in the two events around the launch of The Nightlife. In the first, Paschen shared the stage at the Poetry Foundation in late May, with friend and fellow poet Laura Kasischke. Here Paschen shared several poems that filtered contemporary life through more classical forms. The cadences of the poems bloomed through Paschen’s readings: the alternating rhymes in “Bat House” and the tight metrics of “Lear’s Wife” were at once powerful and full of grace.
The official launch of the book, sponsored by Women & Children First and held at the Swedish American Museum at the start of this month, maintained the same communitarian tone. Members of Paschen’s extensive personal and professional networks mixed as guitarist Luciano Antonio played intricate bossa nova. The mood was festive and celebratory; one of the Paschen’s friends even designed a cocktail for the event, christening it “The Nightlife.” Yet even here, the supple, elegant lines of Paschen’s poetry remained central.
An expert evocation of life in Chicago today, The Nightlife shows clearly how shared space can both connect and separate us. In this collection, Paschen charts the parallel lives of marriage and parenthood that fill city houses and summer cottages, marking the often unplanned-for points of contact between neighbors and friends. She writes of the nightly dance of drivers behind her home on Oakdale Avenue:
Parking is tight.
our lives in such
prized real estate.
Clear-eyed, these poems are aware of both halves of life: the prized things we speak of and the unspoken compromises between them.
Paschen further deepens her study of the split life in poems, detailing the author’s vivid dreams. “I have a very active nightlife,” she explained at the book launch event, letting the double meaning of the word hang as she read one dream-sequence poem “The Wide Stars Above Our Sky,” where an imaginary college course intersects with a real-life friend’s charity trip abroad.Here Paschen’s interest in the parallel lives of families and friends becomes the study of parallel lives within. In an intense and affecting sequence, “Picnic Tryptic,” a woman, perhaps the dreamer, perhaps not, relives the same event three ways. At each iteration, a new corner of feeling gets excavated; dread mingles with a sense of freedom, confusion with certainty, and a husband becomes a stranger.
She is as devoted a chronicler of the one side as the other, and it’s her vibrant depictions of her waking life that give her nightlife its depth. She devotes her considerable talents with poetic forms to track the details of an afternoon walking with her son and of Sunday at home with her daughter. But the other side—the nightlife—is is never far away; it seeps in from the edges in rhyme, meter, and echoing end-words. It reminds us that even when we’re wide awake, there is always another life running alongside.