Many years ago after hearing Michael Jennings read his poems in Philadelphia and being very impressed, I began to look for his work but it was always difficult to find until suddenly in the last two years two wonderful collections appeared: Silky Thefts with Orchises Press, and now a substantial Selected Poems, Bone-Songs And Sanctuaries with The Sheep Meadow Press.
To my ear and mind, Bone-Songs and Sanctuaries sings and moves like few books of poems do any more. It is a Muse book for the most part, deftly dancing with death and the seasons, full of wisdom and rhyme, assonance and alliteration, pace, silence, love, all those elements that are poetry or should define what poetry is. For example, listen to this stanza from the poem Once: “Dawn in the desert is a million gold butterflies — / I lived there once among broken stones / husks of bodies / a tale of death and deaths / and women turned to salt / under stubborn hummocks of black cloth”. In just a few lines we catch so much of Jennings chief concerns: the desert; death; women; tales (the reference to Lot’s wife); metamorphoses ( butterflies and husks and the human become mineral, gold butterflies the dawn). Slant rhymes and sibilants abound.
Although this is a Selected and divided into five fairly distinct sections, there is no indication of chronology, or where the poems might have appeared in earlier books. This doesn’t seem to matter since the voice heard throughout is mature and somehow timeless, and it’s clear that this poet was gifted by the Muse from the onset. And so the first poem, Before Speech, in the first section, Book of Losses, begins from the title and continues: “was the wolf pack, the moon’s children, / her insignia borne in the whites of their faces”/ and ends: “There was signal flashed across space. / There was the will to sing. / Anyone could start.” And this from the last poem, Ancient Music, from what should have been the last section of the book, Lamentations: “We were silent as stones / We had no faces / loud hearts / We felt steely and cruel / like Greeks on a night raid / We came floating like fireflies / toward a language only half our own.”
It says in the bio at the end of the book, that Jennings is a breeder and judge of Siberian Huskies. From the poems, one would think that he is also a breeder of wolves, and dreams, and bones, and was bred himself in the deserts of Iran and the French Quarter of New Orleans where he spent much of his youth. There is a section, A Dance of Stone, with beautiful, elegiac poems, some biographical with purity and corruption, and grounded in the ziggurat of the camera-like lens of his eye zooming in on just the right detail. This, a description of some “pudgy, pale” Americans in Bermuda shorts in the poem, Ur Of The Chaldees, 1958: “They are not quite certain why they came, / and wear the baffled, blinking looks of baby birds.”
There is so much more, the series of tender but scathing sonnets for his mother where one can hear Lowell lulling in the wings ( “…No high-dudgeon / antics can stir the pot. Not even Nieman / Marcus on credit card can make you less than spent”). An entire section devoted to the photographs of Dorothea Lange (“Her hair is long wet strands of dull black weed. / Her head, heavy with it, is bowed”). A sequence of unabashed, lyrical poems for a lover. Tributes to Bob Dylan ( a magical tour de force); Seamus Heaney; Ted Hughes ( “the crashing shires and long haul of mountains / where rock and wind ate at each other…”); and others. And eclogues, half-wild pastoral poems from the woods and lakes of upstate New York. With these poems, Jennings steals us back into the heart of poetry, Thanatos and the pipes of Pan, lamentations and invocations, the “daughter of days / Mother of nights.”
A regular columnist for Poetry International, out of San Diego State University, Kerry Shawn Keys has been a Fulbright Fellow, the recipient of the National Foundation for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and is the author of dozens of books of poetry and prose, including works translated from Portuguese and Lithuanian. His most recent book of poems, Night Flight, came out in 2012, and a book of plays and short fiction entitled Pienas was published in 2013.