For over thirty years, Michael Jennings’s strong work has appeared in small-press books and chapbooks, and with several of these editions long out of print, his new selection of sixty-six poems, Bone-Songs and Sanctuaries: New and Selected Poems (2009), should introduce his poetry to a world that should know it better. But if the scarcity of his early work denies us its acquaintance, the thematic organization of Bone-Songs still prevents us from enjoying his poetry’s chronological development without doing a little detection. For example, an acknowledgment thanks the New York Creative Artists Public Service Program for a grant to write “Dust and a Good Wind,” the book’s closing section of nine poems inspired by Dorothea Lange photographs—but since the CAPS program ended in 1981, these likely stand as the collection’s earliest work. In contrast, a preceding section called “Lamentations” begins with Jennings’s most remarkable poem, “Alexandra,” a fourteen-sonnet sequence about the poet’s mother, who died in 2001; it shows his mature poetic gifts at their height.
“Alexandra” portrays a “damaged princess,” a woman of personal magnetism, sexual power and license, and social pretention, whom the speaker, her son, both loves and hates. “You’re done, Mom,” he says cruelly in the opening sonnet, and crows, in both parody and grammatical protest, “you shan’t/correct my English, nor nothing rail nor rant/against forever more.” A later sonnet paints her as “Powdered, perfumed, your beauty cool as ice,” in “red coat, stiletto heels,” nightly “whisked away into a world of eyes/and mouths and random men.” Yet the sequence also develops a powerful sympathy that lets us understand the mother without mitigating the emotional damage she inflicts upon herself and her son. We see her at age ten in divorce court, forced to choose between her own “mother drug addicted,/[and] your rich daddy a secret queer and crazy,” circumstances that grimly repeat in her own marriage to the speaker’s stepfather, who “stood only five foot six and favored boys.” Yet the triumphs of “Alexandra” belong more to Jennings’s poetry than to psychoanalysis. He daringly and playfully rhymes “You sang your own mantra” with “You changed your name to Alexandra,” and gives his speaker point-blank observations like “You desired to be impossible.” Most powerfully, after surveying “several boxes” of portraits after her death, the final sonnet crystallizes Alexandra’s unique combination of charm and repulsion, mixing her outrageous fascination together with an incestuous queasiness—a combination demanding a slew of hyphenations:
None of [the portraits] hold the look I cherish— that devil-may-care, slightly-over-the-top,
what-the-hell grin. That wink. It all said come dance, little broody boy, it’s all there is.
Jennings’s early poems, especially the Lange sequence, show youthful virtuosity—one, for example, is an unusual double sonnet consisting of two octaves followed by two sestets—and in the strongest of them, like “Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma. 1936,” we would feel the power of Lange’s images even if we had never seen them:
. . . She reminds me
of the future. I give her names.
The names change. Today she stands
in front of four pieces of dark sheet-metal
and almost smiles. It is her birthday.
She has just turned eight.
Her one rag
is held together at her right shoulder
by a small knot that is almost a bow.
This is exquisitely skillful in its documentary pretense. Although the title and the straightforward description gesture toward objectivity, Jennings has contrived everything as shrewdly as in a monologue by Robert Browning—in fact, the abrupt syntactic rhythm and diction here recall the climax of “My Last Duchess”: “This grew; I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/As if alive.” Yet even as the poem focuses our attention on the girl, even as the speaker becomes an interpreter of the photograph and an ironic prettifier of her wretched circumstances—the “almost” smile, the birthday, the “almost” bow—the poem deliberately remains outside her, holding the picture at an aesthetic distance and keeping her an object.
In the book’s initial poems, Jennings also channels other poets, especially Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell, to whom he dedicates individual poems. Some of the animal poems that open the book, while powerful, smack of Hughes’s poetic paganism— “Before Speech” depicts “the wolf pack, the moon’s children,/her insignia borne in the whites of their faces,” and in “Squandered by the Hundred Millions” the spirit of the slaughtered bison “rose into stars, numberless as stars./And the night came/lifting him up with his black rage.” Jennings discovers his voice, however, in “Crocodile,” an apostrophe to the reptile he addresses humorously as “Old bubble brain”:
Mountain ranges grow from his back.
His each scale anticipates
the iron age by eons.
He is the Hindu calendar
written in Braille.
While the poem still owes to Hughes its feeling of the primal, the diction here has become entirely Jennings’s own: The internal rhyming and sonic anagrams (“each scale,” “iron age,” “eons,” “Braille”) sound almost like Kay Ryan in a prehistoric mood. But Jennings’s unique gift display most thoroughly in two more poetic sequences that fully imagine the emotional sweep and subtleties of personal experience—in addition to “Alexandra,” these include “A Dance of Stone,” a striking set of poems about growing up in Iran, where the speaker’s stepfather works in the oil industry, and “This, Of Course, Is What Money Won’t Buy,” nine short love lyrics. In both these sequences, the poetry grows rich with sympathy and invention. The Iran poems overflow with riveting stories, some perhaps apocryphal, like that of “The Egg Woman,” now toothless but once “far the richest whore/in all Khuzistan, with silks and tapestries to boot,” and others all too chillingly plausible, like “Hanoon,” a portrait of the family’s cook whom
we’ll lure . . . with money to another town
far from his family and tribe,
to live, displaced, . . .
And he will service us, less smiling than before,
and steal our silver, and we will fire him,
and I will know what it is
like to steal a man’s joy and
pride and break his heart.
Reading the love lyrics, “This, Of Course, Is What Money Won’t Buy,” feels like falling in love. We follow the development of a romance that—to our delighted surprise—turns the tawdry dross of adultery into the gold of clean-washed emotion. Everything sparkles freshly in these poems—Jennings even gets away with rhyming “exotic” with “quixotic,” preparing for the speaker’s awakening not only to foolhardy new quests but to life’s deeper shadows: “I’m new—grinning ear to ear, hearing windmills./Death is new here, too, and moves like water underfoot.” As in John Donne’s poems, the speaker sees love as resolving all paradoxes: “Clothed in purple and black,/you’re naked. Naked, raspberries and cream,/you’re clothed. It’s magic”; “seeing/is much like blindness, blindness like pure sight.” But for these “new ghosts/wakened to Elysian Fields,” the world never loses its nature, never floats away into fantasy. The lovers “smile at all that is sensuous/and literal,” confident of a love dependent on the body and the organic renewal not only of the heart but of the entire world that houses it:
But here, your walk is so much like the sun or prayer, I must stoop
and touch the place you’ve stepped, knowing come spring, something will grow there.
Jay Rogoff has published five books of poetry, including The Cutoff (Word Works, 1995), How We Came to Stand on That Shore (River City, 2003), The Long Fault (LSU Press, 2008), and The Art of Gravity (LSU, 2011). His newest book, Venera (LSU, 2014), deals with varieties of love, both sacred and profane. His honors include the Washington Prize for Poetry for The Cutoff, the Robert Watson Poetry Award for his chapbook Twenty Danses Macabres, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry and criticism have appeared in many journals, including The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Literary Imagination, Salmagundi, and The Southern Review, and he writes on dance for The Hopkins Review and Ballet Review. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he teaches at Skidmore College.