Poetry is undoubtedly something I’ve come to in later life. All through my undergraduate career I steered clear of it because prose seemed to me to be something I could grasp hold of so much more easily, and I guess my introduction to it at school hadn’t been too enthralling. To this day I dislike epic poetry intensely and cannot find the heart to read screeds and screeds of iambic pentameter. Gradually I began to find poetry I could relate to; short, pithy poetry that didn’t seek to obscure, that was funny or poignant or wry. Poems that elaborated a metaphor, or focused on a scene, or linked together punchy images. If a poem went over a page in length I’d stop reading, unless it had really grabbed me. But reading poetry at all meant that I started to come alive to its enigmatic universe. I began to develop a method whereby I considered a poem like an intense dream, a collection of vividly imagined moments put together in a way that made time and space elastic, but that clouded the causal links. A series of images that begged for interpretation and resisted it at the same time. I’m still very picky about my poetry, but I do have a very tender place in my heart for poets like Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and the recently discovered Anne Sexton. I love the way that they tap into the roots of women’s experience and draw out something dark but vital. They make poetry make sense for me, as an expression of the kind of experience that resists articulation, of emotions so fierce and complex that they call out for a different configuration of words than the ones we use everyday.
I’ve got another poet to add to this particular line-up now, the Canadian poet Beth Janzen, whose work I’ve recently discovered. Janzen is wonderful at mixing domestic and daily experience in with archetypal female figures. Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, the Bride of Frankenstein, Desdemona and, most notably, Persephone, stalk through her poems, on the lookout for vengeance, singing the parts of their stories that were neglected on the official song sheet, and bewildered at the shapes they have been obliged to take. They embody the spirit of fairy tales gone awry, showing the happy ending up as a patriarchal construction in which being owned by the man is not necessarily the point of joyful closure. I particularly liked ‘Persephone at 30’ for the lines
I try to be stern with myself,
give long, rudderless lectures to the mirror.
Every sock has a hole burned through.
Every vet in town has a slash through my name.
I really like the visceral place that Janzen speaks from. I thought about the poetic voice a lot; it’s crisp, often brutal, erotic, bitter, and unresolved. It’s a voice that seems to seep out from the very margins of consciousness, like the thoughts that come unbidden to the mind on the point of sleep or in the strangeness of distraction. I wanted to call it a voice from the entrails, as it’s far from cerebral, but in the end I decided I thought of it as a voice from the hormones, from those odd, unpredictable but fiery coded messages that hold you captive beyond reach of the rationality of experience. Here’s another stanza I loved from a poem that follows, from a heartbeat’s distance, the entwining of love and hate in a relationship:
I look in the mirror and see her,
this curse. You look, see nothing strange.
But put your hand to the glass
and she’ll start to pull you through.
Scream all you like – there’s blood,
but she will not break.
I also appreciated the placement of the poems on the page. I often can’t persuade WordPress to let me have line breaks between stanzas so I’m hardly about to attempt to reproduce more complex typography here, but I liked the way that a brief couplet in italics often appeared like a voice out of left field, the way her short, short sentences snaked sinuously down the page, or the choppy rhythm of a line that contained a break or a gap, a pause or a hesitation. The form fit beautifully with the lush intermittent pulse of desire (a subject on which Janzen writes particularly well), the compulsive captivation of risk, and the melting transitions of metaphor as images slide through patterns of association. The clash of body and mind in the interiority of the soul is just wonderfully orchestrated in her poetry. Like in this opening stanza of the poem ‘Kisses Easily Obtained Are Easily Forgotten’:
But not the kiss we wait for
by the tracks, ear pressed
to damp earth, quietly sensing,
whispering It comes.
The relationship between the body and the material world around it is also a subject that comes up repeatedly in these poems. Janzen forges a tight, throbbing link between bodies and nature, emphasizing the bestiality underlying our civilized veneers in the poem ‘Your Nature’:
Your nature is dangerous
when you’re at night in a shack
somewhere in moose country
and you haven’t seen people
in almost a week.
But emphasizing also a kind of fraternity between mankind and nature bound up with the immediacy of the external world against our skins, the uncontrollable response we have to it, the very intimacy, I suppose, of the effect the elements have upon us. One of my favourite poems is ‘Invitation’, which I’ll reproduce here in full:
Come today onto the ice,
out on the river.
Find the point where the whiteness
forth its cold.
This water’s real –
worth panic, a force
to strike your blood,
heave your life in half.
Let go the mast,
drop your daily oar,
try the test –
the invitation underneath
to stinging salt.
The gulls will cry you home.
The pinpoint focus on the extremity of experience, the moment of giving or releasing or chancing, the split second where what lies beneath is not simply guessed at but thrusts its way forward into consciousness (even if it is the kind of emotion or thought that is mostly felt in bemused silence), that’s the kind of moment that Janzen’s poetry makes its own. The collection is called The Enchanted House, and I loved the whole theme of enchantment and captivation that runs through it, the sense in so many of the poems that they spoke of the moment when forces almost beyond us compel us into action or response. I think that’s what I felt most, reading these poems: that they described not static moments, but dynamic ones, the moments when something shifted in the plate tectonics of the soul. I thought this was an extremely intriguing collection of poems and I’ll certainly be watching out for any other books this author publishes.