Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On Birds for Example
(a chapbook by Jess Mynes)

I was going to start this with a disclaimer about how I’m not really qualified to do a chapbook review. Then I started drafting, started thinking and came to the conclusion that when it comes to poetry, the qualifications are hazy at best and should be altogether ignored in this instance. The reason I am doing a public review of Jess Mynes’ chapbook (available through Carve Press) is because a: I told Jess I would elaborate on my response to the chapbook in one form or another, b: I like Jess as an individual and c: I really dig the chapbook.

I found out about Birds for Example on Ron Silliman’s blog where “Orange” had been posted in full. I loved the poem and decided to splurge on the $5 chapbook. Now I have a confession: Birds for Example is the first chapbook I’ve ever bought and read. I honestly had no idea that there was such a huge market in chapbooks. So, thank you Mr. Silliman and thank you Jess both for opening me up to the idea after all my unintentional avoidance.

Upon receiving my copy of Birds for Example I had no idea who or what “Jess” was—old, young, boy, girl, liberal, academic, conservative, alien. All that I knew about Jess was that Jess was a poet. With this blissful ignorance as to who my speaker was, I prepared myself to sit down and learn. Upon finishing the lovely little book, I still had no idea who or what Jess was other than a damn fine poet.

I still wasn’t even sure of Jess’s gender. This feat was absolutely astounding to me. Anyone reading my poetry is, I’m sure, to figure out how much of a girl I am within a few poems. How could it be that a poet could so magnificently elude gender? To some advantage, the name “Jess” doesn’t give much away, does it? The only real clue is that the chapbook is dedicated to a one “Sarah”.

I tracked Jess’s blog down via Carve. It wasn’t until visiting fewer & further that I learned the true nature of this elusive “Jess”. As it turns out, he is a friendly bald guy living in western mass, working as a librarian. Okay, so I’ve spoilt the experience for anyone else who didn’t know who or what “Jess” was and was thinking they might indulge in the chapbook (which you should anyway). It’s not an experience I think many people would have had, nor one that I think many people will have, and not just in reading Jess’s chapbook, but in reading any collection of poetry.

The experience of reading poetry and negating, not just the poet, but gender altogether, was something remarkably refreshing for me. I was left alone with the words and the words were amazing. Having had read Frank O’Hara and Marie Howe just prior to my exposure to Jess made the whole experience of unknowing that much more dynamic. Both O’Hara and Howe are poets motivated by sex (not exclusively), whereas Jess’s poetry seems to be driven by observation and admiration.

While his works are playful in tone and energy, there is a maturity about the content of Birds for Example which lingers just above the sex-line. The relationships are built in and do not warrant further exploring—it feels, to me, as though these characters have been living here for a very long time. You’d think, though, that such a characteristic in poetry might cause it to feel stagnate or stale. However, Jess manages the antiquity of his characters by placing them in a myriad of historical particulars such as in “no fly zone” where we are exposed to allusions to grandiose “port arrivals”—picture sailors in white caps rushing off a battle cruiser at a New York port in 1918—migrant workers, and has-been cowboy icons in dulled-down uniforms or playing Mexicans in made-for-TV-movies.

One might be wondering now, as I had wondered, if Jess was avoiding the matter of sex altogether. As Mr. Silliman has not-long-past brought to the proverbial table, there seems to be a lack of sexuality in academic poetry written by straight men. I can’t say either way what Jess’s sexual orientation is, and I wouldn’t go about trying to guess. It does seem, though, that there may be some suppression at work in his poetry.

The opening poem, “in West Virginia, in 1938”, is a fine example of everything Jess isn’t saying:

“O cherry tomato
kiss me full on the small of my back
____And all the quivers
of summers renew”

Whereas I may have written similar lines as similes, Jess has created an extended metaphor in which a tomato replaces a potential lover to the projected voice of the narrator/poet.

Fortunately, having had the rare opportunity to read the collection without any awareness as to who was speaking to me, such moments as the one above presented themselves to me not as suppressed love making but as genuine moments of care that supersede the need for male and female parts to be present at the moment of impact. I don’t think, within the reality of the collection, that Jess was trying to hide anything. Instead, I have come to understand and appreciate Birds for Example as a collection of moments in poetry worth aspiration.


arch.memory said...

Katy, this is a beautifully written review.
However, even though I haven't read the chapbook, two things come to mind:
One, does sex have to figure out in every poetry collection?
Two, that little passage you quote smacks to me of sex! It probably couldn't get any more sexual without getting vulgar.
What say you?

katy said...

such moments as the one above presented themselves to me not as suppressed love making but as genuine moments of care that supersede the need for male and female parts to be present at the moment of impact.

and, like i told jess, sex in poetry is my current bentch marker in that it is how i evaluate, relate and interpret poetry at the moment. sexy or not.