Sunday, July 09, 2006

Finding Jane Kenyon at last

Finding Jane Kenyon at last

Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. Jane Kenyon, Graywolf. 1996.

I avoided Jane Kenyon for a long time, and it wasn't her fault. I skirted the nearly cultish admiration that followed her death, mistrusting it. There's so much baggage there -- cancer, early death, marriage to Donald Hall, a great poet in his own right. What hope was there for the poems, standing alone without all that context? It doesn't take more than a few personal losses and a few experienced or observed illnesses to drive a reader to madness, either obsessively seeking out or obsessively avoiding those little pockets of the poetry world that feed on the same.

Well, it's been over ten years, time enough for me to get over it. No point in rejecting outright, without examination, someone's entire body of work simply because I'm worn out (who isn't?) with a world of sickness and death.

And so, dear Reader, I read the poems. Like the fabled plums in the refrigerator, consumed in the privacy of a dark and empty kitchen, they were delicious.

It's too bad they're surrounded by that circumference of death and admiration. This collection even has a lovely and respectful afterword by Donald Hall, tying a knot in that string. It's good to have the information about how the poems were pulled together, and how much of the arrangement was Jane Kenyon's own doing. And it is a beautiful thing to see so intimately inside a marriage of both minds and hearts -- how difficult is it to weather a marriage where both people have the same ambitions and the arena is small, and how much more difficult to weather the losses of this physical life. The baggage is beautiful, and fine leather, but still it is . . . baggage. I may be overly sensitive to the idea of attaching such baggage to women's poetry. Lots of excellent men poets have their own baggage that is well known and forms some kind of circle around their work -- the world of poetry has its share of illness, bad marriages, suicides. But usually with men poets, the work stands alone in terms of how it is published. The myths and suitcases accompany, but in separate containers. Why is it that Berryman, for example, can be suicidal and clinically depressed and his poems are great (nonetheless) but with Plath, Sexton and now Kenyon one is left wondering if the poems depend on the baggage? (They shouldn't -- the poems are absolutely able to stand on their own. The fact that we won't let them says more about how women are read than about how women write.) It's hard to find Plath-Sexton-Kenyon published without some reference to the baggage accompanying, in the same vehicle (foreword, afterword, etc.).

Willa Cather was right to order all her letters burned. If she was depressed or distraught, we'll never know, and we'll read her as gladly as ever.

So, I'm sorry to have avoided Jane Kenyon all this time, but I had good reason. And I'm glad to have gotten over it, because her poems are very good.

She has a lovely sense of structure, with sounds and near-rhymes accumulating. She uses structures that I can tell she's crafted carefully, but that usually are not a "traditional" or received structure. The positioning of the near-rhymes and line breaks is carefully different, except in rare cases where the end rhymes fall happily in tow, usually at the end of a stanza. The poems read beautifully aloud.

Drink, Eat, Sleep

I never drink from his blue tin cup
speckled with white
without thinking of stars on a clear,
cold night -- of Venus blazing low
over the leafless trees; and Canis
great and small -- dogs without flesh,
fur, blood, or bone . . . dogs made of light,
apparitions of cold light, with black
and trackless spaces in between. . . .
The angel gave a little book
to the prophet, telling him to eat --
eat and tell of the end of time.
Strange food, infinitely strange,
but the pages were like honey
to his tongue. . . .

At the Summer Solstice

Noon heat. And later, hotter still. . . .
The neighbor's son rides up and down the field
turning the hay -- turning it with flourishes.

The tractor dips into the low clovery place
where melt from the mountain
comes down in the spring, and wild
lupine grows. Only the boy's blond head
can be seen; but then he comes smartly
up again -- to whirl, deft, around
the pear tree near the barn. Brave . . .

bravissimo. The tall grass lies -- cut,
turned, raked, and dry. Later his father
comes down the lane with the baler. I hear
the steady thumping all afternoon.

So hot, so hot today. . . . I will stay in our room
with the shades drawn, waiting for you
to come with sleepy eyes, and pass your fingers
lightly, lightly up my thighs.

This is just the first two stanzas from Twilight: After Haying

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

P.J. Tracy, Mystery Writer!

Mysteries by P.J. Tracy

I like a good mystery, especially if the writing is knockout-quality. I recently read Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy and was pleasantly impressed. The characters are vivid, the writing is great, and the structure is astoundingly tight for a first novel. To complicate, P.J. Tracy is a mother-daughter team, writing from two different states (Minneapolis and California). I'd love to know how they coordinated the writing effort so well. The book is nearly seamless, and most of the chapter endings have a little twist and lift that will make it impossible for you to put this book down.

My sole criticism is that the characters are very close to that border between vivid and cartoonish. Monkeewrench is a software development company and its members are each unique and compelling, and their physical and psychic individualities are the sort that work well in a novel but fall just short of translating into characters who could live in the physical world. That's a minor criticism, and I was interested to see how the characters would be protrayed in subsequent books.

I read the second in the series, Live Bait, and it is really really good. The Monkeewrench characters are there, but they are secondary characters and that role suits them well. A pair of detectives who played a central part in Monkeewrench take the foreground in Live Bait. Magozzi, the dominant character of the pair, is a strong personality with a compelling set of strengths and human frailties. He has sharp instincts and is willing to trust them as much as the trusts the hard facts. His partner is a good foil, often talking through possible and impossible scenarios, even ridiculous ones, often providing these as fodder for Magozzi's instincts and intellect to struggle through. The partner is very earthy and physical, and unashamedly and charmingly in love with his wife. That's a good counterpoint to Magozzi, who sticks to a spartan and healthy diet (occasionally succumbing to the partner's offers of rich and wonderful foods) and goes home to an empty and emptied house, which he has left in the condition it was in when his ex- left him.

Live Bait is based on a series of murders in Minneapolis that show some obvious linkages but there are enough anomolies that the reader knows a solution won't be forthcoming. Senior citizens are murdered, one by one, and it soon becomes clear that most are Jews who spent time in the World War II concentration camps. But they weren't all in the same camp, and one senior citizen is Lutheran with no apparent link to the others.

As the detectives struggle to put the pieces together, racing to prevent more murders, since they are happening with an alarming regularity, some of the cops and detectives seem to be struggling with their own private dilemmas. One cop is related to a murder victim and has left the police force after the murder of his wife; his world is collapsing on him and when we first meet him he is interrupted in an attempted suicide. Another is wondering if he's a good cop or not, struggling with something he did and what his motives might have been. Another character, the estranged son of one of the murder victims, plays the role of a hopeless drunk but is clearly caught up in his own struggle with an internal moral compass.

The mystery unfolds, and once you think you've got it figured out it takes a twist again -- I don't think any reader will successfully outguess P.J. Tracy, and that's the way it should be. The twists are compelling and, once revealed, believable. But as the mystery is solved, the secondary plot line about all those moral compasses is the part that captured me. You can read this as a simple mystery and enjoy it a lot, but you can also read it as a mini-philosophy on the question of what it means to be a good person, and whether it is possible to be good in the midst of overwhelming evil. Each character resolves his or her own struggle with what it means to be a good cop, or to be a good person. I felt very connected to the characters as this all played out, and by the time the true "heroes" are identified -- those who remain "good" despite all pulling to the contrary -- they are the sort that really are the heroes of real life. They're not the primary characters, and not the ones you'd pick out as shiny. One of them is nowhere close to perfect. But they have understood, and held on at all costs, to what it means to be a good human being.

That, and the excellent writing and fully-honed characters, make Live Bait a must-read. You'd do well to start with Monkeewrench, but if you only have time for one, make it Live Bait.

Here's the official P.J. Tracy website: