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Joan Larkin: Writing to the Uncomfortable Places

December 21, 2013
It’s our good fortune to follow up Gerald Stern, the judge of our first Raynes Poetry Competition, with Joan Larkin, who is judging our current contest. The following appreciation is by our contest coordinator, Gretchen Primack. The submission period remains open until January 15th, and the theme this year is “Union.” —Editor by Gretchen Primack joan-larkinI love flipping between the early and late pages of Joan Larkin’s latest poetry collection, My Body: New and Selected Poems (Hanging Loose, 2007). It’s time travel, and it’s exhilarating. Her newer poems start the book, and as you turn pages, you follow her deeper and deeper into her past until you’re back in 1975 — but through her writing life, her themes are remarkably consistent even as her tone mellows and her details sharpen. The title work of the newest batch of poems, “The Offering,” launches this collection. It’s a love poem to a baby daughter, which means the poem itself is a harking back (that daughter is now an adult). Don’t expect sentimentality: This poem has a comfort with discomfort and a distinct lack of romantic whitewash. “I shook for three days/on my knot of hospital sheets,” Larkin writes. She remembers“(t)he way you’d shake me off./Your well of rage.” Though the two find peace by the end of the poem, there’s a hunger, a dissatisfaction spelled out even there, and it’s a fitting cornerstone for the book. This refreshing, unflinching willingness to go to uncomfortable places is one of Larkin’s hallmarks. Her poetry has been recognized for its “electric tension and steadfast balance,” as Marie Ponsot writes; for “dark subjects deftly and honorably portrayed,” per Maxine Kumin. These traits, along with a simultaneous tenderness and patience, have led to great prestige. Larkin’s the recipient of the 2011 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and she received the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award that same year. She’s also received two Lambda Literary Awards. She’s taught for four decades at such schools as Brooklyn College, Sarah Lawrence, and Drew University. What I find in My Body is that Larkin’s later poems are sharper and even more rueful, often elegiac. Consider the end of “Apprentice,” in which the speaker, remembering herself as a young child, helps her father shovel coal into a furnace:

And if he did say

You do it, then that was the moment

I first tried lifting my father’s

burden, taking on his work, climbing

down steep wooden steps

to feed the thing that was always there

in the dark with its mouth open.

Or here’s the end of “Kitchen Scene,” in which an older child glimpses her mother on the kitchen floor: as if alone, lit, onstage, she howls I hate my life, I hate my life! Her sobs ululate in time to her violent scrubbing. But it’s no opera. Her voice my embryo despair, I’m sobbing, too— Mama, Mama, please—what did I do? This ambivalence, so real, intricate, and unafraid, extends beyond family dynamics. Larkin explores identity in “Jew in Paris”, in which her Jewishness is both obvious— “My aunt’s looking through me into/this case of circumcision knives” — and complicated — “I’m still the offending speck of chometz/they find by candlelight and flick/from the spines of prayerbooks . . .” Equally complicated is sex and love, as in “The Combination”: Face on face, lip pressed against lip, hands blunt on breasts, minds gone numb, we work the combination…. The bed groans. Dot rolls away half smiling. Well, she says. We got that over with. Larkin’s earlier poems are also unflinching, but they tend to be more centered in the present. Where they do hark back, they switch within the poem to the present as if to show us immediately how that past has affected the speaker. Consider the beginning of “Secret Song”: How can I tell you I’ve been stealing. Stole from you. Hid memories in my skin of what we did, we do. And there are more love poems among the earlier poems, more about the obsession and bittersweetness of passion: Aetna, Vesuvius… Monadnock— something volcanic and Latin crashes against my Massachusetts rock or the opposite my lust pilgrim to your stone Roman-emperor heart moated by oceans But, as that snippet shows, there’s also more abstraction. It’s as if, as the decades have passed, Larkin’s camera points more at ground level than the sky. Poetry is often discussed in terms of accessibility. Throughout her career, Larkin’s poems have had a lovely balance on this front. They communicate on a first look, but one’s understanding deepens with each subsequent reading. And there is so much else to appreciate—the poems’ careful crafting, skillful line breaks, consistent truths, pleasing music — along the way. “Your beloved has folded your house into his,” she writes. “I’m wading the swift river, balancing on stones.” Gretchen Primack is the author of Kind (Post-Traumatic Press, for sale at our Pushcart) and Doris’ Red Faces (Mayapple Press). A dedicated animal rights advocate, she is co-author of The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, with Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown (Penguin Avery). Primack is the coordinator of Jewish Currents’ Alexander and Dora Raynes Poetry Competition and has also worked as a union organizer and prison educator.