by Weston Cutter
The author Leslie Mormon Silko has a magnificent line that reads "So little between you and the sky, so little between you and the ground." Like any good quote, this stays with you and begs to address anything compelling and beautiful. Romanticize the quote or find it morbid, it's brilliance is the brevity and fact of it. When I first read it, a few years ago, I believe I applied it to an infatuation with some woman (I was maybe 20, please be patient). Since then it's worked quite well directed toward my cigarette habit, music, working on a riverboat...you get the idea.
New York, as well. I experienced that place for the first time this past summer, walking the streets looking for celebrities and madness, thinking of the glut of life that had lived itself out in that city. And while there, I found my latest (and, in my mind, best) referent for the quote. I was traveling with a few literary magazines, one of them the Spring 2002 issue of the Cimarron Review. On page 84 of that thin book, sitting somewhere north and west on my way out of the city, I read a poem called "The Magician" by a poet named Jennifer Boyden.
Without using the words infinity or talon, without feral or the phrase stars like teeth in the neck of night. Without bone. No moss or aperture. The wrist absent of flourish and the cup of milk without a motive. A palimpsest so thin it is the text. Away the moon and how light allows the morning. Perhaps light. No body undulate. Perhaps body. Without the declivities of collarbones, the rustle of want. Come to me.Let's go down the list on that. By the end of the first sentence, we've gone from infinity, through if not hunting, than at least the tactility of predator/prey, to an image of awful beauty (awful, there, in the real sense: full of awe, something able to instill reverence). Then bone, moss, and aperture, a triptych of meaning I wouldn't try to unpack with fewer than a few thousand words. That beautiful next piece: The wrist/absent of flourish and the cup/of milk without a motive. Good lord. Again: unpack at will, although I can say that it's the line I've come to love almost most, the juxtaposition of stolidity and a tenderness without intention. Again: holy shit. The next line as anything: as skin, as emotion, as meaning, as, bottom line, beautiful. And the last rush? Five lines that burn so fast it's nerve-wracking, ending with the brutality of an ocean, of a sheer face of rock: come to me. I can't hear anything beside desperate authority in it, a magnetism universal beyond the iron shavings of beauty.
So there I was, with so little between me, the ground, the sky.
Jennifer Boyden is one of three or four American poets who simply beat adjectives. I've flapped witty and waxed ecstatic about her, and am usually stuck reaching for that now well-worn Spring 2002 periodical and letting whoever I'm with read their way to the slaughter. Yes, that was 'slaughter': if you aren't on your knees at the end of "The Magician", perhaps you need new knees.
Of the unholy inequities of this world (a monarch stealing the presidency, the populist shirking of responsibility for the underprivileged —itself a pretty thing to call Those We've Given No Chance To—the escalating price of organic Granny Smith apples), one of the more troubling, to me, is that Jennifer Boyden has no castle. Nor does she have a day set aside in her honor in any city, nor a published book. Yet, dear reader, yet. To rely on a George Harrison line, "All things must pass".
I submit that poetry is not that which blows the top of everyone's head off, absolutely. Those scalpings are now left to visual and auditory rushes, usually things that take place in the dark. Certainly popular contemporary American poetry, too, isn't helping matters, with self-help-isms and sentiment standing in for the tough and glinting Truth of poetry. There are exceptions—Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, Olena Davis—and Jennifer Boyden is my favorite exception.
I also submit that poetry may or may not, against SUVs and airfare, bear the weight of utility that classic American pragmatism demands of what we'll say matters. How and why poetry matters is an argument not really valuable when there are Jennifer Boyden poems right there, just at the bottom of the page.
Take "Regret", for instance. Count the metaphors if you'd like (five), verify how powerful the images are, make solemn note of the precise blending of the natural and human-made elements in the poem. Perhaps take a minute to consider the anthropomorphism of the poem, how each item—the speaker, her own internal knife, the "storm of trees" (good god)—seems independent and full, not crooked on each other, nothing propped up. Notice, even, how the poem turns at the end, the act of cutting at the beginning an aggressive gesture, and at the end becoming something passive, spoken by the one getting cut instead of-
See, what does that do? What can it do?
No, what's important about Jennifer Boyden's work is what I can only call the organic nature of the poetry. By which I mean an organic nature that includes not only women singing something "in all its turquoise finery" and players "with one fist forever fisted and the other/full of sugar", but also cowboys with "asses tight in their jeans and/their jaws set hard against the sun" and "the earth (that) threw us forward/fast." The organic world that includes both the lushness of the moss and the bacterial life and death beneath all moss. Every poem of hers I've been lucky enough to read is written from, to, and "at the edge of the most dangerous playground in the world."
Because here's the deal: technology has not only not fixed stinky underarms, but hasn't cured why people get stinky underarms. We've spent years of energy on securing more comforts, but we're still comforting ourselves against the same discomforts. And while Jennifer Boyden doesn't specifically write of the discomforts of life, her brazenness in including them—achingly wonderful things slung arm in arm with the black sheep, flawed bits—is the irreducible jolt that makes her poetry so gutsy.
An invocation of natural life—as metaphor, as foil, as anything with a purpose in a poem—doesn't assure much anymore, really. I'd love to pretend that I could, through my own experiences, recall the feel of a chainsaw in my hands, or the breath of bulls on my back. I can't, as is the case with most of us—the rural exodus has skyrocketed to the point that the minority of those who do know those sensations dwindles by the day. Yet her inclusion of those elements is simultaneously fresh and ancient, like water from a glacier that is twelve thousand years old but that's only recently turned liquid.
There's something apocalyptic about her writing, although lacking the usual bluster of trumpeters and horsemen. Her poetry includes that desperation of love needing salve or soothing through any measure:
Winters, we jumped from rooftops to snowdrifts, praying for just one broken arm. Nothing.In all four of her poems here, there are examples of that delineation gone hazy and unclear, in the most beautiful way. The thing that's wrenching, to me anyway, is that her poems are about feeling, about the sensation of something. What she does so well and so astutely is not separate the 'good' from the 'bad': Kids who want attention jump from the top of houses and pray to break an arm. We can sense regret coming, even if we're still in the dark about why we'll fell the regret. We long to feel, and by extension, to live. With blood and sunlight, under stars and through that slight sheen of desperation, we want life, with all its hectic glory and beauty.
Life, of course, now progresses and, eventually, ends under the gauzy auspices of "complications", and I think that's the element Jennifer Boyden bares her razor to most deftly. Not that she writes about death, but that in writing so movingly about these perfectly contained moments of living, about the crystallized points when nothing but deep inhales are possible or available, she's giving a clear sense of what we've got, what we're in the middle of.
What I feel Boyden does, so mercilessly and tactilely and viscerally, is document, with limitless clarity, the life that seethes and pulses outside of and away from hubris and caprice. Whether or not the nature she writes of is one that you're familiar with, you can't read her poetry and not feel those bulls, can't look into the sky without seeing those gleaming teeth in the neck of it. The concessions and sleight-of-hand tricks we engage in to make life calmer, easier, and more lubricated aren't bad, not at all. Given the world-imminent threat of just about every form of extinction—an anodyne is an anodyne is an anodyne. But with each beautiful, perfect poem she offers, Jennifer Boyden gives us something born of hope, ferocity, and daring: she gives us truth, and beauty, and the reckless meeting of the two. As their "hearts slam against/whatever walls (they) had to have between" them, or perhaps "just for the blood of it."
The secret did not include our mother. She had the heart of a bird and let us feel it. The weakness there was a pinhole of light two moths fought to get warm by. For this, we were not to tell her we spent our summers in the bull pasture. Understand, we were seven children and lonely each to play so small a part of the whole. Some days we fought to be sick and alone so she would lie beside us. Winters, we jumped from rooftops to snowdrifts, praying for just one broken arm. Nothing. Finally we had to make the bulls hate us. When they fell lock-kneed into sleep, dumb with the size of themselves, we'd thistle-whip some into waking. Sparks from their eyes caught, then lit. We ran. Each hoof carried the weight of the herd as the earth threw us forward fast. Somewhere ahead the fence was beyond or under the dust. Behind, their breath, frothed and hot on our backs. Six more steps: maybe we'd see a brother thrown up and over the fence, his hair like a banner and his hands on his ass; perhaps a sister, clearing it, barely. Whatever the end, it would be a pain with no sharing. We took turns holding each other to our chests to hear our hearts slam against whatever walls we had to have between us. Then we'd watch through the fence slats: sometimes the bulls began to fight themselves just for the blood of it. Flag I thought I was going to the rodeo for the cowboys with their asses tight in their jeans and their jaws set hard against the sun. But as it turned out I was there for the anthem and it so happens this was the first time it ever caught me in its starry net. The anthem started out about twilight and bursting bombs, but then a horse galloped by and where it been got taken up by the voice of the woman singing her anthem best in all its turquoise finery. The horse pulled the song behind it, overlapped its edges, and burst it wide open. Then everything was smeared with America. Every horse that bucked under that strap and every rider that fell or made it became the country. Clowns came out and then bulls and ropes and chaps, spurs, hats, calluses and boots. The announcer saying we sat at the edge of the most dangerous playground in the world. All its players grew up with one fist forever fisted and the other full of sugar just in case something pretty with its head held high came along and needed to be broken one way or the other. Regret I am sawing again through a storm of trees. The chainsaw grip and roar speaks to the spinning whetstone inside me. They converse with twin dialect that thickens the smoke of my blood until something demands to be oiled. Deeper in my body a little knife sharpens itself and prepares. So sharp, it says, nearly ready. Soon it will ask me to feel it.© 2002 by Weston Cutter. All rights reserved.