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Poetry of Music and Imagination

Janlori Goldman
May 10, 2014

Marc Jampole and Gretchen Primack, JC-Connected Poets

by Janlori Goldman From the Spring 2014 issue of Jewish Currents Reviewed in this Essay: Music from Words, by Marc Jampole. Bellday Books, 2007; Doris’ Red Spaces, by Gretchen Primack. Mayapple Press, 2014. MusicFromWords_MarcJampolePoetry’s power is often in its music, the way we hear a poem and feel it in our bodies even when there is no instrument accompanying the lyric. A strong and enduring poem screams like the tenor sax, troubles us with its blues, syncopates, murmurs, hits high and low notes, calms and unsettles, all with syntax, meter, rhyme, word choice and order, and maybe most saliently, sings an emotion so urgent that we, as readers, hear it as the poet’s inability to stay silent. dorisspacesEarly English poetry was written mostly in iambic meter, paced to the pulse of dah-dum, dah-dum (and so on for five “feet”), an unstressed syllable following a stressed one. We don’t know this consciously, but our bodies know it; we hear the rhythm and experience the language as a physical presence, much like the regular beating of our heart pumping blood — think Shakespeare, think Keats. In the early 20th century, iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets were challenged by poets who, having witnessed world wars, the Holocaust, and the upending of social norms, believed that poetry’s aim should be not to lull but to disrupt, to startle with unexpected meter, to move away from the sing-song of nursery rhymes and epic poems. Enter Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Marianne Moore, and in their footprints, William Carlos Williams, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich. As we might imagine, once poets mounted a successful rebellion against the enforced iamb, some contemporary writers are now free to return to it, because metered song and a predictable, certain beat speaks to us in necessary and familiar ways. Jazz poets such as Langston Hughes, Jayne Cortez, and Sonia Sanchez write to the specific rhythms of that musical genre. Jampole, a new member of this magazine’s editorial board, is a poet who explicitly embraces music as his animating force, what gets his poems singing. But Jampole is not satisfied with one traditional form; his book, Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007) is divided into five sections, “Operas and Arias,” “Love Songs,” “Abstract Music,” “Protest Rock,” and (with a nod to Walt Whitman), “Songs of Self.” In other words, Jampole takes us on a romp through music’s history and movements, making us feel an aria’s barely restrained hysteria as well as John Coltrane’s elegiac syncopation. Here is a poet of tremendous range, whose subjects occupy the span between Audubon’s bird paintings and a suffocated Moses in the suburbs, with a smattering of nostalgia, sex, and anti-war poems along the way. Jampole’s poems really sing, remarkably, in a diverse chorus of registers, often with affection and humor. Take the opening poem from the “Operas and Arias” section, “July 4th”— And the three-year-old at the picnic/said she wanted to play the violin/ and I said, just like Joe Venuti/ and she said, you’re a Joe Venuti/ and I said, you’re a Joe Venuti. . . . The poem bounces along in that playful tune until Joe Venuti is the word for everything, including shadows. This run-on sentence of a poem picks up such speed, and for a while after I’d read it I was reciting, “no you’re a Joe Venuti.” From this first page, we know we are in for a treat. Turn the page to read “Dot and Sylvia,” about two women and all the ways they are the same, not differing until the end, in their method of suicide — Dot by pills and Sylvia (Plath) by oven. The poem is both sentimental and grueling — she fluctuated between loving every stranger/and abhorring her own flesh. The same can be said of “Moses in the Suburbs,” a dystopic critique of modern life: And he looked across the wilderness and saw/cars grazing in rows on asphalt patches/. . . and he felt himself a stranger. . . The poem ends in biblical, fiery destruction, with Moses intoning, Here I am. This first section of Music from Words also includes a poetic rendering of “My Favorite Things” that embodies both the popular Sound of Music song and John Coltrane’s interpretation of it. The poem is an entwined riff on both versions, a heroin-infused, jumbled romp with brown paper packages tied up in veins. . . blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stayed,/the rush of playing the unexpected interval . . . schnitzel/ with noodles ripping at liver . . . until we come to the end, the chant that’s a habit,/the chant that’s a dream, that chant that’s a meditation of the sound/listening for it all the time in everything . . . Readers familiar with both interpretations will find it impossible not to hear the parallel yet discordant arrangements. In a musical sense, Jampole’s writing inhabits its forms, as in this “These are a Few,” which is composed of seven seven-line stanzas — a highly stable container for such volatile, uncharted terrain. Jampole’s love poems are less about love than its bittersweet sister, as love is always, a new way of seeing,/a new way of not seeing. These are poems of romance’s contradictions and jealousies, the push and pull of intimacy: Play me don’t play me . . . you can stop whenever you like/don’t stop till I say to, stop. It’s curious that many of the poems in the third section, “Abstract Music,” are filled with nature images: water, the lodgepole pine, and (one of my favorites) an “Imaginary Landscape with 29 Birds (after Audubon).” Jampole credits the creation of this ekphrastic poem, written as an assignment, with unlocking his ten-year writing freeze. Each of the twenty-nine painted birds is held in a three-line stanza, reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ “so much depends on a red wheelbarrow.” Each section is exquisite and full of surprise, as from “WhipPoorWill”: Black oak’s grandiose green and tawny/butterflies unaware of whip-poor whirring menace/set to pounce one already swallows colors. The final stanza is Jampole’s own bird in space, Or instead a shining metal elongation/lusting, thrusting towards the sky . . . The section, “Protest Rock,” opens with “Staff Meeting Minutes,” a clever take on mind-dulling corporate blah blah which morphs to la la life and I-don’t-want-a wah wah want-to-be. Other protest poems rage against war and brutality in “Dreams of Old Men,” and “Ghost,” and grapple with faith and all its beliefs in improbability: Faith rebuilds a house/ on warm lava . . . Faith photographs herself/naked in the bedroom light/ with a young man she has just met. Though this poem is sustained by an edgy cynical tone throughout, Jampole reveals a touch of the softy at the end: Faith delights in moments/soaked in giddy joy . . . and life appears/to stop in springtime’s murmur/not to move again. In the concluding section, “Songs of Self,” Jampole is at his height of intellectual curiosity and experiment. “The Sixth Dream of Gilgamesh” replicates in form the found fragments of this earliest literature, and much as you see with Sappho’s surviving words, Jampole’s lines are couched in brackets and ellipses, giving an “as if” impression of an ancient text. But this poem vibrates with 21st- century angst, a modern nightmare of dialing the wrong number. . . and when I get it right, no one answers[. . .], across the field holding hands[. . .]/ everyone I ever met [. . .] forgiving [. . .]. Jampole’s voice is unlocked and full-throttle in this first book. The poems not only replicate musical forms, they also appear as abstract landscapes, Cezanne in verse, depths and perspective presented simultaneously, so that we experience a kaleidoscope of images, voices, music, all at once. Jampole is a composer of poems, and Music from Words is a premiere score in five movements, ringing out in seemingly disparate musical styles that speak to us about what matters most. Books__DSC0812.1.1.finalGretchen Primack, who runs this magazine’s annual Raynes Poetry Competition, is an astonishing writer, a poet of risk, imagination, and heart. Doris’ Red Spaces, her newest book, sweeps us into its arms and holds us tight even when we are uncertain where we’re going. In struggling to describe these poems as a whole, I realize that Primack has somehow written the mind’s associations and splits in ways that allow us to experience them, to be carried on the tenuous threads that link thought to expression. At times I wondered if Doris, the main character we travel with on this book’s journey, has dementia or some form of psychosis, and that in her brave and generous way, Primack is inviting us in. There’s also a strong sense that the ‘I’ of many of these poems is speaking to Doris, who is a shadowy, ancestral presence, resurrected to receive intimate conversation, to be this poet’s companion or alter ego. We bear witness to Doris’ struggles, to her efforts to see and understand the world in all its misery, and as her witness we come closer to seeing her as the darker side of ourselves. Whether it’s Doris or another ‘I’ in these poems, I surrender in affection and compassion to these voices, these fragile, complex women who let me see them at their most vulnerable. Doris’ Red Spaces is concerned with the empty womb and the aging process, life’s potential start and its last days, as in “Hollows,” the opening poem: I like the one where a crib’s/supposed to be. . . . That/ space is swept space: I burst/ a bright red filling every/month and leave it to that. And in the following poem, a direct address: All right, Doris, it’s a perfect dusk/ for a walk . . . Doris, your profile is dreadful/ in the violet light. . . I’m so exhausted . . . not from anything/ in particular; just/ being here,/ and I know you know/ what I mean. Tiredness and exhaustion recur, and not just in humans but in seemingly inanimate objects: tired water/holds itself up by the curbs. . . . In “Matter” we’re pulled into the great questions of life’s meaning and our purpose: We are gangling small things, bits of matter/that don’t, and nothing can make us big. Here, Primack makes her case for stories, Other people’s stories . . . Without the stories, this shell swivels on its stalk,/empty. One story that clings is “Doris Can Juggle” — three suits of armor. Three handfuls/ of straight pins without losing a one. She can/ juggle a bleached blue beached rowboat/ disorientation, and a fig branch, blindfolded. Don’t you want to keep reading this poem? It is a marvel of inventiveness and trust in the reader. We cheer Doris on, wanting her to keep it all in the air, to even juggle juggling. Though some poems contain the vibrant, nearly frantic energy of keeping lots of balls in the air, in many others someone declares they are bored or boring, as well as tired and exhausted, as if just the living and the thinking about living are too much, even for a seventh grader: We float the rink/in Kool & the Gang ovals./. . . Somewhere above the / the domed roof rests a spine of clouds./ I don’t think about it much/but when I do, I’m tired of it./ When I don’t, I’m like/ the other girls, blank/and pretty as a scarf. Primack swings from the brown weight of questioning to a poetic engagement with space and space-exploration in a series of poems interspersed throughout the book. Here she makes room for the widest imagination, the most fertile, original language: This is about food,/ which has never been/ about sustenance./ About space, which/ I have never been able/ to stare in the face./ About hollows/ packed full . . . Food is a charcoal pencil/ filling me in . . . This is about/ what I can’t hold. “Space” opens with a line that also serves as the title for Primack’s 2007 chapbook with Finishing Line Press, The Slow Creaking of the Planets, in which some of the Doris poems first appeared: The slow creaking of planets/ overhead . . . She’s almost grown tired of the music:/ the beak of the oboe, the cello’s throat. At some point in the reading we become afraid for Doris, seeing her weariness as a permanent state of hopelessness and despair. In the penultimate poem, “Bird,” we sense her slip away: Doris takes off her shoes/ and folds and wraps/ herself so small she fits/ into the lung of a bird. In that tiny lung, she is pumping song through air./ None of us can sing like that. Primack has a gift for containing both magic and gloom, for showing how the parts of us that absorb too much of the world just wear out, wear down. Finally, we return to the theme of fertility and childlessness that begins the book. The poet lays it all out on the page, to conceive or not to conceive, to make the choice not to bring a child into the world — I can’t think why/ someone would create a child — but she then takes an even bolder step in “To Abortion:” Thank you for thinning/ out the ranks . . . should I need you,/ you will come into me/ and I will be cleaned/ out, saved. Primack is an audacious poet, full of longing and honesty. She is also quite clever, often using words with double and triple meanings, breaking lines so that the stand-alone phrases mean one thing and then something fresh in relation to the lines that follow. Even her title is fecund: Doris’ spaces, both the physical world around her and the planetary realms, are red as blood, red as soft tissue and the heart, read as a poem. How lucky for us that Primack shared Doris with us, as well as her less-weary self. Janlori Goldman is a poet and a teacher. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals (, and her chapbook, Akhmatova’s Egg, was published by Toadlily Press. Last year, Gerald Stern chose her poem “At The Cubbyhole Bar” for Jewish Currents’ Alexander and Dora Raynes Prize. Goldman teaches at Columbia University, and is a writing mentor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.