Beginning with Norma Cole’s 2009 Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1998-2008, City Lights Books has been releasing contemporary poetry titles under the auspices of their Spotlight Series. According to their website, the series “shines a light on the wealth of innovative American poetry being written today” in an attempt to provide cultural visibility to poets and the small presses on which they normally publish. With strong releases by writers such as Anselm Berrigan, Cedar Sigo, and Cathy Wagner (I’ve previously reviewed her City Lights book Nervous Device), the series has been, to my mind, an unqualified success.
Earlier this year, City Lights Books published the tenth installment of their Spotlight Series: Lisa Jarnot’s Joie De Vivre: Selected Poems 1992-2012. While it might seem odd for a poet with only four full-length collections to release a “Selected Poems,” this volume offers readers new to the poet’s work a wonderful introduction.
Jarnot, born in Buffalo, NY in 1967, studied with Robert Creeley at SUNY-Buffalo and earned her MFA at Brown University. In addition to her books on Burning Deck, Zoland/Salt, and Flood Editions, she is the author of the biography Robert Duncan: The Ambassador of Venus, which the University of California Press published last year. Currently, she lives in New York City, where she’s resided since the mid-90s.
As for her writing, Jarnot has, for the better part of her publishing career, trafficked in the poetics of difference and repetition, recalling, to some extent, a Steinian aesthetic. By employing a finite lexicon in conjunction with an ever-complex re-ordering of those words and their syntax, Jarnot’s poems produce an interesting and, thus, productive tension between the familiar and the strange. Take, for instance, the opening sentences from the prose poem “blood in my eyes,” originally from her first book Some Other Kind of Mission:
Blood in my eyes followed by truck in motel. either severely or proper. followed by police activity. followed by truck in. followed by followed by. followed by truck in motel. at the library. at the truck in motel. at the of. today there where they’re taking me. followed by. i dreamt about and followed by a truck in thence motel. followed by properly.(4)
The poem continues on in this fashion for some time, piling sentence fragment upon sentence fragment, all the while echoing the words “followed by” and “trucks” and “motels.”
This technique, though, becomes even more compelling when, during the time period of Ring of Fire, Jarnot replaces the period with the comma. Gone are the staccato rhythms of fragmented sentences; instead, dense and sinuous sentence structures appear. Augment by these comma-driven syntactical digressions and tangents, the poems become beautiful in their unwieldiness. A wonderful example of this shift in punctuation is “Poem Beginning with a Line by Frank Lima.” Her homage to the oft forgotten New York School poet slides through twenty-one lines of enjambment before its one and only moment of terminal punctuation:
And how terrific it is to write a radio poem
and how terrific it is to stand on the roof and
watch the stars go by and how terrific it is to be
misled inside a hallway, and how terrific it is
to be the hallway as it stands inside the house,
and how terrific it is, shaped like a telephone,
to be filled with scotch and stand out on the street,
and how terrific it is to see the stars inside the radios
and cows, and how terrific the cows are, crossing
at night, in their unjaundiced way and moving
through the moonlight, and how terrific the night is,
purveyor of the bells and distant planets, and how
terrific it is to write this poem as I sleep, to sleep
in distant planets in my mind and cross at night the
cows in hallways riding stars to radios at night, and
how terrific night you are, across the bridges, into
tunnels, into bars, and how terrific it is that you are
this too, the fields of planetary pull, terrific, living
on the Hudson, inside the months of spring, an
underwater crossing for the cows in dreams, terrific,
like the radios, the songs, the poem and the stars. (48)
Yes, the poem becomes “terrific” in its many permutations of the radio, the songs, the cows, and the stars populating its lines as they meander within its singular syntax. The poet finds a way to enliven repetition with a refreshing ecstasy due to her adeptness in recombination; in the hands of a lesser poets, such practices can easily bore a reader, making her achievement all the more remarkable.
But Jarnot is not a one-trick pony. In her later books, she works through different ideas and aesthetics; in “Sinning Skel Misclape” from Night Scenes, for instance, she starts to move away from a poetics of difference and repetition to explore rhyme, meter, and antiquated spellings and pronunciations:
O sinning skel miscalpe thy lock
from frenzied felbred feefs
and longitudes of long tongue fuels
up from the theme that random flaps
in news flash rancid hose. (73)
While Jarnot does overload the first two stanzas of this poem with the hyphenated “unpebble-dash,” such repetition takes a back seat to the poem’s other characteristics. Likewise, in Selected Poems’ concluding piece, the fifteen-page “Amedillin Cooperative Nosegay,” the poet explores organic, open-field forms composed, primarily, of catalogs and lists in order to create a fluid and impressionistic account of our modern era.
When all is said and done, though, Jarnot’s poetry continues to resonate because–after the experimentation and language play–her poems still burst both with feeling and beauty. Whether penning lines such as “let them row for days beside the / moon and next to other things less brave” (63), or tugging at the heartstrings with lines like:
and at noon I will fall in love
and nothing will have meaning
except for the brownness of
the sky, and tradition, and water (27)
Jarnot finds a way to capture a moment of emotional intensity with and in language, while simultaneously letting that moment retain the mystery and the wonder which it produces.