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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Joel Bettridge reviews

On the Cave You Live In by Philip Jenks

Flood Editions, 2002, US$10.00, ISBN 0-9710059-2-3

This piece is 1,800 words or about four printed pages long.

What is striking about Philip Jenks’s On The Cave You Live In (Flood Editions 2002) is its use of fragmentation, but not the type of fragmentation readers have come to expect from poetry in the avant-garde tradition. Jenks’s poetry achieves its textual striation on the level of tone by shifting between narrative and sound based passages, as well as between stretched out lyrical sections and jagged, cutting lines. Midway through the book the poem ‘Skin’ begins,

By now Kentucky leaves thicken
humid clenching the trees completely
still, as if bracing for some great breeze.
Several of us, Flash-In-The- Shed, and
Business-Like, claptrapped sick against
the rickety busted up dread of being tired
of America. (35)

While the opening lines might at first seem to be a more or less straightforward consideration of American subjectivity—or at least an account of feeling alienated from it—the poem never stabilizes such a reading. The ‘Business-Like’ ‘Skin’ of the title suggests both the drive of consumerism and corporate America’s dress code, a skin in which ‘several of us’ feel ‘claptrapped sick against’ American life—as compared to the natural ‘Kentucky leaves.’ At the same time, such a critique is complicated through the rewriting of the phrase ‘flash-in-the-pan,’ as ‘Flash-In-The-Shed.’ Turning ‘pan’ to ‘shed,’ turns the sudden dissatisfaction with American identity into a private sickness hidden away in ‘rickety’ personal ‘dread.’

Cover of Jenks book
Although this singular apprehension is shared with others (that is, other people feel this way too: the ‘several of us’), it remains closed off from the public sphere—locked away in a ‘shed.’ The poem can’t simply be self-satisfied with its critique of American consumerism, or even be sure what the effect of such a critique might be. It is this impasse that leaves ‘Skin’ focusing on the problem of efficacy and the possible impotence of personal dissent.

The anxiety caused by a shared, yet limited, anger about American culture and economic policy foregrounds the tension Americans who are less-than-satisfied with their country feel about what it means to be at once both in and outside American culture, able to sense its error, but not able to know what to do about it.

Midway through the poem, the long, image-based opening lines become first more referentially difficult, and then much shorter. This shift of form and manner causes the images and references of the poem to pile up on themselves.

of America. Flash-In-The-Shed, introduced
through a world of embarrassing exposures
is more accustomed to snake-handling
though this offends Business-like’s
puritanical sensibilities.
Puritan. Folded in.
The snakeskin
flesh of dead man
exposed for ‘too long’ and
he dream of rising up like Lazarus
dream he become
hill, all mounded up.
Shedded, repented, retrieves—
spilled memories
spent moment of worship. (35)

The ‘shed’ of the beginning now also refers to shedding the snake-like ‘flesh of a dead man.’ The main speaker’s original ‘Business-like’ character becomes a separate entity with its own ‘sensibilities.’ The breaking up of this line into ‘Puritan. Folded in,’ confuses who or what is now ‘puritan’ and what is folded in. The compression of these images allows the poem’s subject to either ‘shed’ his or her ‘business-like’ American ‘skin,’ or to become the dead flesh itself dreaming of ‘rising up like Lazarus.’

And yet, importantly, a new ‘he’ enters the poem with this Lazarus line, or ‘he dream of rising up like Lazarus,’ and it is not clear who exactly this ‘he’ is, whether a second version of the subject (as he is now feeling distanced from himself), or a completely new person. When the poem closes with ‘spilled memories / spent moment of worship,’ not only is it unclear what has become of the American subject, it remains unclear what the possibilities are for being other than American flesh exposed for ‘too long.’ Lazarus was raised from the dead, but in ‘Skin’ such resurrection is not a settled matter. Due to the repetition of ‘dream’ and the poem’s line breaks, either the subject realizes the dream of becoming Lazarus, or his dream is just that—a fantasy—and he becomes a ‘hill, all mounded up,’ presumably with dead ‘skin.’ The loss of hope in such a case turns our American skin into ‘spilled memories’ and ‘spent moments of worship’ from which we cannot escape.  

Jenks’s poems are also heavily invested in their own sound texture. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, slower paced lines tend to make less referentially stable poems ‘sound’ more narrative, and quicker moving lines tend to break down the referential development of image-based poems.

I didn’t write you today.
When I did
you were all hollowed out
boney cuneiform
on the cave you live in. (1)

After the first line, the opening poem makes little referential sense, but the line breaks and sound patterns recall the sequential progress of much recent speech based poetry. The difference in line length allows for a stop-start, hesitant reading development of the poem, a development intensified in the longer line’s more narrative character. The arrested rhythmic progress of the stanza turns the reader’s attention to the way each individual line acts as a part of the larger poem and as an individual unit. The first line’s primarily iambic structure separates it from the second, fourth and fifth lines trochaic feet. But the repetition of the two ‘i’ sounds—’i’ and ‘ī’—throughout the stanza in the words ‘didn’t,’ ‘did,’ ‘cuneiform,’ ‘in,’ and ‘live’ in the first case, and ‘write’ and both ‘I’s in the latter, works against the lineation’s dividing impulse. Likewise, the interjection of a longer ‘o’ sound that repeats inside each line but the second, makes each line wonderfully balanced. At the center of the stanza, the pleasure of hearing ‘you’ and ‘all’ echoed in ‘hollowed’ and finish in the ‘o’ of ‘out,’ slows down the reading, and as such, intensifies the choppy rhythm allowed for by the poem’s alternating line length and meter. Rather than fracture the poem into tiny pieces, this hesitant development of the stanza mixes with the stanza’s sound repetitions to allow for a poetic surface that has more in common with a mosaic than it does with disassociated fragments, ‘shored’ or otherwise.

When some pages later the reader stumbles on the three line poem ‘skoal cradled / in hidden / hillbilly’ (20), the sound patterning of the ‘l’s and ‘d’s has nearly the opposite affect. Rather than slow down the reading pace, the sound shape of the poem intensifies the oral density of each line, somehow nearly erasing the line breaks. The fairly straightforward image of a ‘hillbilly’ with a ‘chaw’ in his mouth fades somewhat against this reading pace, almost as if the reader was driving past the man on a country road.

Such a shifting of poetic texture creates a book that does not hope to continue the destabilization of the lyric ‘I,’ or even to put that ‘I’ back together after its recent demise. Rather, On the Cave you Live In uses each poem to pose the possibilities for our own subjective and multiple existence. The poem ‘M’ begins,

it happened
in the woods
so I believe
but ‘it never happened’
sends down his dictation.
‘I’ happened in the southern woods
I don’t think it happened.
it did, happen to me,
but didn’t, am no more.

The possible reality of a god no longer believed in is joined with the impossibility of the unified ‘I’ by putting them both in quotation marks. Although the poem repeatedly insists on these disbeliefs, it can’t get by the persistent sense that there is more a stake than one’s point of view as a ‘never happened’ object takes physical form and ‘sends down his dictation’ whether you believe in it or not. In such a manner, On the Cave You Live In constantly reminds its reader that he or she happens to have a singular, physical body, in spite of any disbelief in a unified self: each poem both proclaims the poet’s life and its erasure. From this vantage point, what is ‘no more’ is undetermined, whether that be the speaker of the poem, the ‘it,’ or the disbelief the speaker has held fast all along.

Thus, when the poem ends with the lines ‘it was me. / can’t tell,’ it is not that the book is no closer to resolving its own questions of personal and spiritual existence as much as it shifts its concern to the nature of belief itself. On the Cave You Live In is charred throughout with intellectual, emotional and spiritual investments, and each poem is concerned with our state of being in the world and the way we construct our individual systems of conviction.

In taking up such concerns, these poems move past the impossible question ‘does god, or me, or you, etc., exist,’ or even the question, ‘do these things exist for me,’ and toward the inquiry into ‘might these things exist, and if so, how and why?’ Thankfully, this interrogation of possibility shifts the burden of the poem from revelation to investigation, and On the Cave You Live In does its best to help us pose the questions we need to attend to such concerns ourselves.

Insisting on such investigations by way of disjunctive poetry creates a type of fragmentation interested in how different things come together as opposed to a portioning off bent on demonstrating how different things are simply different. Jenks’s form of fragmentation allows for a sense of converging meaning and intersubjectivity. While each fragment is different and will mean differently to individual readers, there arises a sense in On the Cave You Live In that these different meanings can be shared because they can be experienced. Each divergent image and disruptive reference comes together to create a reading practice aimed at investigating the dilemma of our subjectivity, for book’s fragmentation resembles the patterns of our lives: both physically and instantly individual as well as socially located and held in common with others.

Photo of Philip Jenks
Photo: Philip Jenks

Note: Jenks’s book is the most recently publication from the relatively new press Flood Editions. Flood has already published books by Pam Rehm (Gone to Earth), Tom Pickard (Hole in the Wall: New & Selected Poems), and Ronald Johnson (The Shrubberies), and is publishing books by Fanny Howe and Paul Hoover this summer. Flood is also scheduled to reprint Robert Duncan’s Letters.

Joel Bettridge recently completed his Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo. He is currently editing a collection of essays on the poet Ronald Johnson for the National Poetry Foundation’s Life and Work series, and has published other reviews in Cross-Cultural Poetics, Rain Taxi and the Chicago Review. His poems have appeared most recently in Poethia and ecopoetics, and he has a chapbook from Phylum Press.

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