“Excavation,” by Janet Jerve (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 73 pages, $12.95)
Janet Jerve’s debut volume opens with lyrics on familiar themes: aging parents and childhood scenes. It is the second section that reveals Jerve’s mettle as a poet: she is a master of structure.
In this section, she narrates the speaker’s mental breakdown and recovered memory of sexual abuse by her father. The form breaks: words scatter across the page and poems segment or compress into short lines.
The poems welcome new language. She wakes, “miserable, shucked”; and lives in a “quaking bog body.” In “Breaking Down,” she uses absurd MC Hammer lyrics to describes “the voices in your head … all playing chicken as they race / down Main.” MC Hammer morphs into the image of a hammer: “through the clutch / of his unwanted touch. / Father hammer.” Sound replicates the chaos of her father violating his parent role.
Jerve uses repeated phrases to send the reader back to first section. This structure functions as a metaphor for recovering memory; the reader revising their initial interpretation parallels the speaker’s realizations about her past.
The third section moves from personal to communal:
“I imagine the darkness that separates all women, / that connects them to absence, to stars / that have shifted over time with the speed of aggression / to the knowledge there is no beauty in dominance.”
Instead, the beauty comes in the speaking against and through dominance with poet’s tools: structure and form.
“Adventures in the Lost Interiors of America,” by William D. Waltz (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 80 pages, $15.95)
William D. Waltz’s second volume is saturated with abundance and urges readers to experience the strange beauty of the natural world.
In “The Four Leaf Blowers of the Apocalypse Came Calling,” the speaker holds an armful of leaves: “I gave each leaf a pet name / … and the smells of autumn attached / themselves to my personal DNA.” A wind that “needed nothing / and could not be made more perfect” blows them away.
Waltz describes the landscape around his home of St. Paul — the moonlight overflowing a bathtub, the “fleur-de-lis” of a tree’s shadow, crows in “silhouettes in prayer.”
Waltz’s language has the precision and wonder of nature programs he mentions in his poems. Readers will delight in the aptness of his description; a “hippo / who walks underwater / like some kind of feral / Jesus.” Not returning to the moon is “like giving up on peaches / or friendship.”
His poems are tightly crafted in short lines or prose blocks and move by a careful logic. For example, a brain resembling “Caribbean coral” eventually takes us to “Craters of the Moon National Park.” Sometimes the logic’s sound-based: “eagle and sparrow / and like pharaoh the radiant / vulture.” It’s a pleasure to follow the breadcrumbs of Waltz’s thinking.
“Tell me why the Great / Lakes are lonesome / for whales.”
The question seems so apparent, it feels strange that we haven’t asked it before.
“Tin Flag: New and Selected Prose Poems,” by Louis Jenkins (Will o’ the Wisp Books, 106 pages, $20)
Prose poems dispense with the fundamental structuring principle of poetry: the line. For poets like Gertrude Stein, this means a reliance on techniques like fragmentation, resulting in opaque and elliptical texts. For other poets, including Louis Jenkins, the form allows for casual and spontaneous writing that is instantly accessible.
“Tin Flag” brings together Jenkins’ new and selected prose poems, including parts of “Nice Fish,” a play he produced in collaboration with actor Mark Rylance.
Jenkins shows off his wit in meditations on the mundane: growing too much zucchini and forgetting why you walked into a room. He confronts the junk drawer with his gentle humor: “Here is a small black plastic gizmo with a serious demeanor that turns up regularly, like a politician at public functions.”
His poems are often structured like jokes with a set-up and a punch line. In “The Long Winter,” ice fishing means fishing for fish made of ice. He writes: “If you cook an ice fish you wind up with nothing but a skillet full of water.”
One poem begins with the speaker in awe of the stars, and concludes: “When you look at a star with your naked eye all you see is a little white dot, but when you look at it through a telescope you see a bigger white dot.”So many poems use this form, reading the book straight through can be repetitive. Instead, enjoy in short sips.
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.