Saturday, May 08, 2010


Rock a warm word secret

Rock Candy by Jenifer Rae Vernon (published 2010 by West End Press) is one of the books of poems I brought home from AWP in Denver. I first encountered Jen Vernon at the Albuquerque Cultural Conference in 2007 -- I don't quite recall if we met formally, though I remember her from a couple of the conference sessions, and I heard her read some of her poems at one of the readings during the conference. I was excited to hear that West End was going to do a book of her poems. I found Rock Candy a powerful and moving book.

These are poems of plain spare language, spoken language, often the stories of friends and family members Vernon has told, retold, shaped into poetry. Vernon has a keen ear for the tough clipped rhythms and painful honesty of people telling what they must tell, no matter what the cost. From the poem "Rock Candy Ladies":
My women rock a warm word secret on their laps,
peaches in winter time, fur fresh and canned
Grandma Callie named her sixth born Del Monte,
after the soaked in heavy syrup half moon hunks

Sweet women mine, rough with the outside, but so tightly kind,
pin prick fine, Del Monte died at Christmas time
from asbestos pipe dust, sawing two to fit one to get the job done,
hot water bottle breaths in and out brittle up,
useless, like two crystal glasses
left with just leather lungs, nothing-to-be-done
my mamas lose their sons

And my mamas lose their daughters too, on Rainier Avenue
and around town when the men are at logging camps, or picking apples
in Wenatchee, they lose their girls to swung handbags and hips
they lose their girls to car salesmen, bankers, lawyers, cops
they lose their girls to fire
like Aunt Geraldine making her self into a burnt offering,
after too much working, bathrobe and cigarette ember, liquor
but angels rise white winged from flame, come in breathing cool
The world we live in affects us, the history that enacts every day in us and around us, the political ideas and actions that grow out of this history, in our constant movement in real time. A casual comment in a corporate board room can result in thousands of people losing their jobs and their homes. A massing of people in public streets, facing down the armies of corporate power, can turn into bloodshed and disaster or can lead to a transformation of the quality of life, to more or less food on the table. This connection between large public actions and close-up human consequences runs as a constant awareness through Jenifer Vernon's poems, sometimes as a kind of underlying ground rhythm, at other times as explicit content in the poems.
i went to a wedding in the high atlas mountains, and when the road ended
i met a boy tending sheep
we sat together, in crickets and silence

it gets lonesome, coming up in the country,
i remember pulling tansy ragwort, weeds the cows couldn't eat,
and being ecstatic to meet, soldiers in war paint,
trudging through swamp, looking for Fort Lewis, totally lost
i wonder if this shepherd kid, met some of them, too,
i wonder what, they chose to do

the shepherd and i talked with our faces, because we didn't share much language
he touched index finger to lip before he greeted me, and when i made to go
he placed his palm against his heart, reached in pocket, and gave me a favorite rock
said "i mean it" with his hands and eyes, like we learn to pledge allegiance
but there were no flags between us
just some sheep and crickets, a young boy's brown eyes
(From the poem "east-west.")

One of the pivotal poems in Rock Candy, the long poem "Elegy for Chastity," was (quoting from the Author's Note at the end of the book) "propelled by the murder of the author's childhood friend [...] and importantly, other women like her. It aims to give voice to a collective and an individual through poetic eulogy." The poem is a remarkable accomplishment, moving seamlessly between voices and viewpoints and pieces of an essential story, assembling a narrative with the skill and steadiness of someone used to making things by hand. Though difficult to give a sense of the overall movement of the poem without quoting it at great length, I want to give at least a short excerpt here, to give a little sense of the texture and movement of the poem:
We should have helped ease the load
provide basic needs
for canned peas, milk, hamburger
rent check, power, water
toothpaste, soap
laundry quarters
a modicum of order

So she could use that good head on her shoulders
to get him out of her ears, nose, holes
she could not pull him out of herself alone
she needed an exorcist
she needed time for mental order, she needed rest

His words rattle ramp inside her skull cave detonate
in her opened palms
before she can make a fist she's scared shitless
she raises them, begs help from Jesus,
but he's got to teach her something
she holds them out in front of chest
she struggles to out stretch
but he's stuck like a tick tock
beat starts stops, sets aftershocks
shrapnel wedges black bits in flesh, works out over years

Time's more than a glass covered plate screwed to wall
black pointer spun white face talk,
when did this start?
The bio note about Jenifer Rae Vernon in Rock Candy says that she was raised in Yelm, Washington, and in recent years has been a featured poet in clubs and performance spaces in the San Diego - Tijuana area. "I learned," she says in the bio note, "that plain old words can shine glorious if they are bowed and rearranged right -- and that sometimes the rhythm says more than the words themselves." Many of the poems in the book felt to me like they would work well as performances pieces; Vernon has made an effort to capture something of this quality on the page with careful choices of line breaks, and with frequent non-standard placement of commas, to emphasize the speech rhythm qualities of the poems. I found this highly effective and evocative of real individual human voices.

So many of us come from the places Jen Vernon tells about here. So many of us share these stories, whatever the specific details may be for each of us. This is a vital book of poems, demonstrating (in a world where, under current political and economic and historical conditions, we need to keep saying it) that we who work building the house of each day have useful and important things to say, even if our names aren't Bush or Cheney or Clinton, AIG or Citibank or Goldman Sachs. Saying these things together, hearing our words collectively, we become stronger and further affirm the value and meaning of our lives.

Among the poems in the book that moved me the most were a couple written about a friend of Vernon's who died of breast cancer. I'll finish here with some lines quoted from one of the poems, titled "flame":
i miss her when she wore flame
taffeta, to our parties in north park
when she danced like cindy lauper and didn't worry
about academic papers or hard lumps
of cancer

i miss her when her eyes talked tricks
from deathbed in climate controlled clinic
when she demanded green frosting cake and candles
for her husband's birthday and for what she named
her pre-funeral party

i miss her when we all had plenty of time
before the vultures got in line
to do their duty, tough guts
they can eat it, chemo
morphine, goldenseal
gallons of green tea,
baby you fought hard, tried

my bald winged
carry her please
to the otherside

Vernon's work displaces my numbness, pierces-- especially with the power of language as much as statement. This is a terrific essay, as usual. Time for you to collect your essays into a volume, yes?

Thank you for your long comment about Frida Kahlo...and my/her feet! I hope all is well with you. You are I hope sending links to your essays to the people you review at the very least....xxxj
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