Reading his rare, unqualified enthusiasm*, Martin Stannard’s review in Stride of Exchangeable Bonds by Justin Jamail [here] was immediately persuasive so I acquired and have been reading the poems with my own admiration and bafflement.
I’ll begin my account with reflecting on expectation in reading such perplexing poetry and how one adjusts, if that’s the right word, to Jamail’s constant shiftings in meaning, focus or impression. Instead, I revelled – eventually – in his dancing around with ideas, imagery, suggestiveness or linguistic surprises. There’s nothing new in this, so I don’t need to explore the poles of poetic tradition and experiment. Where I am on a personal learning curve with these is their apparent links to a New York ‘school’ of writing and poets like Kenneth Koch and Paul Violi who are new to me.
Another personal take is in the paradox of my inclination to expect/want ‘meaning’ when I read and then my other appreciation of uncertainty and deflection, this latter aligned closely to my own significant [as in amount] writing of found work – not that Jamail’s is a ‘remix’ in this sense: probably far from it.
Having recently reviewed Matthew Sweeney’s final poetry collection [here], I think there is a notable divergence from his imaginatively [sometimes surreal] shifting narrative threads compared with Jamail’s writing, precisely because Jamail’s seems to eschew narrative, certainly in any linear sense. We can follow a Sweeney chronicle despite the way in which its content is constantly morphing; with Jamail the changes can be acute, disconnected and often mindboggling.
To illustrate what I probably haven’t explained all that well, an example of an apparent immediate disconnect is in the opening two couplets of Impatient to Assume,
‘Eight hours studying appliances
That pay for themselves over time.
Don’t laugh: it’s one way
To find out which tress grow in the flood.’
Of course, what follows begins to unravel, or ravel further.
On the other hand there is a more fluent/following-on in A Version of a Tragic Poem,
‘Out of the mild pleasantness of disaster
a secret thing
like a pigeon egg hidden
in plain sight.
Teetered in a zone of concrete and tar,
it came from a newspaper tray
where things continue
in time, and time…’
[with apologies that WordPress cannot accommodate some indented line placings, as in the original]
And then there is that which is, by comparison at least, quite connected, from On the Wonders of Creation and the Peculiarities of Existing Things,
‘The pleasures for which you came
Went on, or would have anyhow, as
Being there and looking felt the same.
The Book and city are a kind of Alaska:
Full of some things and empty of others, but listing
The pleasures for which you came:’
Then we go back to the delightful – genuinely so – perplexity of A Horse, a Hare, or a Peppercorn,
‘Overtake the creases in the meadow, this like failure
seems to one so bland as the nard of Texas, and
where are you? Trying to decide if this field
is a meadow. It’s something to do with moisture
or firmness, or the presence of both, I think.
The quality of fine hairs, too. And is this fish
a widow? Not yet. But don’t look so resigned –
the props, the vegetables shaped like a blanket/friends,
could arrive (or move?), and explain themselves
Even titles signal their variables, as in the preceding two and these: At the Chinese Mustard Factory and The Effect of Sunshine on Dead Fruit.
Where I do see/find a linear[er] narrative in the way Sweeney invents one is in a Jamail poem like History of Umbreto Nobile.
The next is quite irrelevant in many respects, but there are poems that reveal themselves with ease, like those making up Two Encounters, and I’ll present the first one in its entirety, liking so much the final automobile image of Sheep Meadow,
‘The first time I walked
across Central Park
in the middle of the night,
I came across a stranger
with a telescope.
He introduced me
to his crowd and I got in line
to see Saturn, which looked
like an ivory Chrysler.’
The second, One Night This Guy Scared the Crap Out of Me, is again quite prosaic in storytelling, if more threatening.
There is so much more to experience. Isiah Writing Down a Dream has quite a lyrical closing about light; A Shank Is More than a Miss is a rumbustious runaround of playfulness about beef, a smudge, a fowl, a mother, and a table too near or not too near a harp, all to ‘(Great cheers)’; New England Speaking is a personal favourite with its many American touchstones all thrown together like ‘Wichita’, ‘Cadillac locusts’, ‘Cap gun Indians’, but most importantly the line ‘I left Omaha city in a bus-liner for the colonies’ because that is where I was born, and in In My Fancy Wallpaper the opening stanza just keeps surprising.
*I’ll close on this explanation lest anyone think I was being sarcastic about Martin Stannard’s poetry reviews which I always find sharp, often hilarious, and generally quite despairing about what he is tasked to read/review: in this recent article about his writing day here, he has this to say – ‘Some people think my reviews are mainly negative, sometimes verging on the harsh and cruel, but they’re wrong’ – and goes on to explain why this is wrong. If interested, have a read. I’m certainly glad I went with his positive recommendation of Exchangeable Bonds, and concur.