Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Glances like brilliant wings

Recently I've been reading, re-reading, poems by Jenné Andrews. I first read her poems shortly after her first book, In Pursuit of the Family, was published in 1974 by the Minnesota Writers' Publishing House. Jenné came and read and talked with us in a class I was in at the U. of Minnesota called Male and Female Images in Contemporary Poetry.

(The program I was in, Experimental College, was far less formal, far less dry-academic, than the fearful name of the class hints at. We met in various small rooms in an ancient glass-domed building, with dusty windows and aging used furniture. As often as not we sat on the floor instead of chairs. The class typically had 6-8 people attending including the instructor, poet James Moore.)

We were in the tiny college library (basically a small storage room with a couple of couches and a bookshelf, and one window) the day Jenné Andrews came and met with us.
We have turned together
as if we made a slow tributary.
Before sleep
your glances were like brilliant wings
passing through the brush.

[...] We separate.
Musk rises from our bodies
and the damp trees
as our substance dries
into a continent between us.
(From the poem "Sounding," in In Pursuit of the Family.)

She brought copies of the book. Reading her poems, listening to her read, I began to understand something about the importance of silence in and around poems. Her poems carry a great patience, allowing whatever the poem is bringing to have the time it needs to arrive. I continue to be struck -- even after many readings, after more than 30 years -- by the delicate touch of the imagery in her poems, how two or three or four lines will linger and glimmer after reading them. I'm still astonished by this.
Today we carry our defeat
into the ancient light
of nightfall in the fields.

[...] This is how we account
for living by the feverish order of need;
In famine
we walk apart on the evening hill.

Then the the act of cold blood--
turning back
to hold each other.
(From the poem "Kyrie," in In Pursuit of the Family.)

Jenné and I got to know each other just slightly during the few years she lived in St. Paul. She was an active part of what was then still not a huge community of poets here (these days we trip over each other, the place is crawling with us), though an alive and energetic one. From the few times we met face to face I recall her as somewhat thin (though not starved), a kind of spare toughness, having weathered much deeply held inner pain. A person of great openness and compassion. She spoke always with great care, paying attention to the right word even in relaxed conversation. (I say these things to try to give a little sense of how I perceived the sort of person she was, though one never knows how one's impression of another person might be received by that person. I hope I'm doing justice.)

From the poem "Western with no Losers" (in In Pursuit of the Family):
We had been sharing the heavy sleep
of after victory,
having time-traveled through the 50's,
dancing in the bar
like tumbleweeds
toward the impending mountain
of lying down together.

[...] Dawn had the silence
of a widow in attendance
at a public ceremony. It was
the best possible hour.

With one taste of salt
you threw your 10-gallon hat in the air.
I bucked in deliverance
and our winter failures snaked off
over the floor
like film footage we were tired of.

Your shuddering yes
was the prize. We were
sweethearts having a rodeo.
In a later book, Reunion (pubished 1983 by Lynx House Press), her poems at times become more subdued, more meditative. Running through all of her poems is an insistence on allowing memory to speak its own truth. From the poem "After Reading Parts of Mother Goose to a Friend's Children" (in Reunion):
Mother Goose did not teach us what to expect;
her songs did not make us powerful
against rituals that could say who we were.
But these books bled our raging
against the conspiracy of the West, sent us dreaming
to the dark side of the world
so that cardinals flew through our sleep
and the household morning sound of tortillas being made
became the endless rhythm
of a dream horse trotting around a flagstone dais.

Here the later days
of my mother's absence are reopened;
how she was kept in a place called Nazareth
in southern New Mexico,
given volts every day by nuns in white linen,
made to love the male doctors
who came punishing and rewarding,
caressing her name with their voices.
Over the years I've gone back to her poems, again and again, as a primal source, as a wellspring and a healing. Passages of a few words or a line or two or three come back to me at moments when I need poetry most, when poetry can say essential things to me about whatever is happening in my own life. From her poem "Songs from the Bread" (in In Pursuit of the Family):
In this time of work in late year light
rubbing salt powder from apples,
bringing ripe squash in from the frost

I forget that there was once a shipwreck
every day until I had no being [...]

[...] In these mornings
the eyes return to the woodpile
against white stucco

And in the hands
dough pulls back from itself,
beginning to glisten,
taking shape in the act of resistance.
I quoted the last four lines of the above passage as a epigraph at the front of one of my books of poems.

The first time I met Jenné Andrews was, as I said above, when she visited a class I was in. But it was not the first time I'd seen her or heard her read, though the first time I didn't remember her name afterwards. In the spring of 1971 (I was 16 years old), Robert Bly organized a "Poetry Reading for Buddha's Birthday" in Minneapolis at the Guild of Performing Arts, a small unpretentious theatre space in the West Bank area of Minneapolis (in those years the heart of local hippie life). In addition to Bly himself, the featured readers included Tom McGrath (he read his hilarious parody of Bly, "Driving Toward Boston, I Run Across One of Robert Bly's Poems), Michael S. Harper (who gave a stunning reading of his poem "Dear John, Dear Coltrane"), -- eight poets altogether.

Maybe a couple of hundred people came (though I've always been bad at guessing that kind of thing), anyway the wooden riser seats were filled and people overflowed onto the floor, leaned against the walls, wherever they would fit. It was spring, though early spring -- everyone came in wearing winter coats. (It's common still to have ice and snow on the ground here through at least the first half of April.)

The featured poets read for a while, taking turns a poem at a time, bouncing back and forth one to another. Then, after they'd all read a while, Bly turned it open to the audience, inviting anyone who wanted to come up and read, again one poem at a time. Somewhere among the readers from the audience, a woman who looked to be in her 20's came up to read. She said she had moved here from Colorado; she introduced her poem by telling us it was about her grandmother, and that after she wrote it, her entire family disowned her. I really liked the poem she read, and a couple of lines from it stayed in my memory afterwards, and stayed and stayed.

The poet was Jenné Andrews. I realized this when I read the poem, again, three and a half years later, in her book In Pursuit of the Family. (The poem is one of two that are also included in her later book Reunion; in the later version, the first two lines of the poem have been revised out by the author. The version I quote from here is the earlier one.) The title of the poem is "New Mexico Territory":
You were once waiting
for the revolution.
On a March day your father's men
brought El Fego at a hard gallop
down the canyon,
tried him,
had him hanged. [...]

[...] You were El Fego's affiliate.
You rode out on given days
to chart the arroyos.
In your diaries
I found his poem about your green eyes,
his maps showing holding points
west of the Sandia mountains.

The land was to go back
to the Bacas, the Chavezes, the Romeros.

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