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I will get the obvious out of the way: Today it is easy to offend. Try wishing someone a Merry Christmas, or compliment a co-worker on a new dress, but make sure you have a lawyer on retainer. We worry about feelings and take little responsibility for ourselves. We sue when we spill coffee on our legs; we sue when the dry cleaner shrinks our clothes. It’s become a very strange world, indeed. And yet when poets write, this world seems to vanish into a haze of metaphor, semantics and deeply held politics. Jennifer L. Knox is one of the few willing to write about this world, in this world, and not be afraid to erase the line between what is acceptable and what is real. What she started in her first book, A Gringo Like Me, she continues in her second, Drunk By Noon.
Knox may have hit on a truth much deeper than she knew when she finished off the first poem in the book, ‘Yowl of the Obese Spaniel’, with the line ‘I’m never gonna have sex, I’d sure like to kill something.’ It just feels very American, as it goes through the brains of millions of teenagers all over the world.
And that may be a good thing: not necessarily the killing part, but the part where Knox understands how to work an audience. These are not poems to be placed on a pedestal. They are to be read and, most importantly, enjoyed. Knox gets it. Poetry for the now is vulgar, it’s crass, and not because we live in vulgar and crass times, but because we realize that all times have been vulgar and crass. In essayist Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk, she asks ‘What surprises you: that there is suffering here, or that I know it?’ For all intents, Knox may as well have said ‘What surprises you: that this place is fucked, or that I write about it?’
In Act I, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet, Gregory says, ‘I will show myself a tyrant. When I / have fought with the men, I will be civil with the / maids. I will cut off their heads.’ Londoners of the time knew full well what Shakespeare was implying: cutting off the maid’s heads, which is a play on removing the maidenheads. And in modern English that would mean taking their virginity. By raping them. Dirty, crass, and vile, isn’t it?
A few lines later Sampson replies that ‘Me they shall feel while I am able to stand, and / ‘tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.’ Yes, he’s speaking of an erection. Or, as Knox writes in I Am a Girl, ‘My dick’s so big it must be checked / at the airport.’
In all honesty, I don’t think that Knox is trying to shock. In a review I wrote of her first book, I compared her to ‘Richard Prior with an MFA.’ I don’t think he was trying to shock for the sake of it, either. If it happened and stirred up some controversy and publicity, great, but it’s not shock for shock’s sake, like a common radio DJ. It is simply a way of communicating in the people’s own language.
I know it must be shocking to learn that the word ‘fuck’ is used frequently, by men and women, in a variety of ways and in a vast amount of places. Yet when it turns up in a poem, it is often used to drive in some point, to raise a flag that says ‘look here, I’ve planted this filthy word to show you how [insert adjective here] I am.’ But in life away from the page, it does little more than provide more emphasis to everyday existence, i.e. ‘We’re out of fucking milk’ or ‘Look at this fucking guy.’ Knox does not use language as a tool, but rather as a means: the simplest way to get from A to B. Her poems exist in a very real, yet drugged out and disturbing, slice of life.
In ‘Music to Watch Girls By in the Mysterious Perfect Infinitive’, the narrator of the poem ends ‘so drunk I’d just fucked a pile of phonebooks’. It sounds anti-poetic, yet it is the poetry of the people. At least some of the people. That one line makes more sense to more readers than 90% of what you find in the poetry section of any bookstore. It is real, and it happens, and we all know it happens. John Clare was enamored of the English countryside, and Jennifer L. Knox is enamored of the guys smoking a bong and ‘shrooming in a van out in the back of the house. Not everyone is enamored of the English countryside, but everyone has that cousin.
Knox is interested in the new American mythology. While others go back to ancient tales for inspiration, Knox knows that the world probably doesn’t need another poem about Persephone or Ariadne’s rescue by Dionysus when there is so much untouched material existing in the now. In ‘I Wish My Brother George Was Here’, Liberace is the center of attention in a story of how
[...]At 64, Liberace
paid to have his 17 year-old lover’s face
surgically altered to look just like
Liberace’s 17 year-old face so when Liberace
was fucking his younger lover he was fucking
The story (which I believe may be true, according to a show run on BBC2) is just as disturbing as the story of Oedipus. Probably quite a bit more. When narcissism needs to be invoked, invariably it falls back to Narcissus himself. But isn’t Liberace’s story just as good as an example? And, no question about it, infinitely creepier.
But just as there was more to Liberace, there is more to Knox. While the majority of talk undoubtedly will concentrate on the ‘dirty’ bits, more talk should be given to the poems themselves and their images. Even the line ‘so drunk I’d just fucked a pile of phonebooks’ has more in it than initially expected. The phonebook contains everyone, from A to Z. Or, as Steve Martin’s character Navin R. Johnson declares in the 1979 movie The Jerk when he receives his new phonebook, ‘I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book everyday!’ But the people in the phonebook are just names, no faces, and pretty much unknown. People who have things to protect keep their names out of the phonebook.
In ‘If My Love for You Were an Animal’, between the humor we find some deeply intriguing lines:
When wet, it would smell like clarinet reeds.
It would break every thing in the house — but purposely, silently, secretly, one
item at a time, over hundreds of years, so no one would notice.
It would be so loyal, that if you fell asleep before you took the sleeping pill, it
would slip the sleeping pill under your tongue.
The smell of the clarinet reeds, wet with the moisture of your mouth, the mystery of things breaking (which may already be happening to all of us), and the final act of giving us what we already have. I’m not surprised that Knox was able to deliver this, but I am a little surprised with myself for expecting only an Alice Cooper-ish stage show, where we know something ridiculous is coming up and suspect it may be a dismembered head.
But in keeping with pleasant surprises, and there are many, including the rather touching ‘The Corgis Come and Go’, the best poem, I found, is ‘“In The Canyons, Hidden Farms”’, about the Akira Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai. But even in this, Knox chooses the character whose sword is absurdly larger than everyone else’s.
In his most famous role, Toshiro Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo (on whom the ‘Han Solo’ character of the Star Wars movies is partially based) is never actually invited to join the other samurai. As Knox writes, Kikuchiyo is a drunken fraud — his papers are stolen, his skills with a sword suspect at best. He is the comic relief, as far removed from the stoic samurai as
He scratches at himself, half-naked: his bare ass
Hangs out of his rags; he hops around like a monkey,
Sticks out his tongue, flips dumb farmers the bird —
He laughs, he yells, he argues, he makes a mockery of the nobility and honor of samurai. And in the end he stands up for the villagers the samurai are protecting, eventually giving up his own life in a scene where even the most hardened of cinemaphiles still gasp. Knox finishes the poem with
Kikuchiyo can’t remain throughout a silly clown —
(The self’s a greedy river, our low banks overflow)
His last expression’s hidden: dying fast, face down.
It may seem as though Kikuchiyo was a pretender who becomes exactly what he pretended to be through sheer force of will. But of course, he comes to be what he always was, much like these poems. The feeling behind the words was there long before the words had meaning.
Some people will come upon this book because Knox is the ‘girl poet with a dirty mouth,’ others will get sucked in because of the poem’s titles (‘Everything Melted in a Really Weird Way’ and ‘General Tso’ are good, but ‘I Am My Own Elephant Gun’ may be the best title for anything, ever). But I think that they will stay because she is doing something that captures attention, is truly artistic, and fills a void in contemporary poetry.
In ‘The Ideal Reader for Jennifer L. Knox (A Fellow American Down on His Luck)’, Knox reports that this person would be ‘a man, / dressed like a woman [...] half sausage, half cowboy hat, is bad at math and bad in bed’ and ‘would ‘fuck your mother under a picture of you’’. I have another idea about this particular reader. The reader would be a high school dropout, or a Ph.D. candidate, a government worker or a housewife bored with tabloid t.v., a junkie hipster or a mountain climber. It would be someone looking for something that they are not finding in other places.
Jennifer L. Knox is able to cut through to a large audience because she is writing without an audience in mind, or, more precisely, because she is not limiting herself to any particular audience. It is the average people that Knox ends up speaking to, the people in the phonebook, and by very definition, average means most of us. I, for one, am certainly happy that she continues to speak, and I will definitely keep listening. Or, as Knox herself ends the poem ‘Popular Music After The Apocalypse’,
John Findura holds an MFA from The New School. His poetry and criticism appear in journals such as Mid-American Review, Verse, Fugue, Fourteen Hills, GlitterPony, CutBank, H_NGM_N, and Rain Taxi, among others. Born in Paterson, he lives and teaches in Northern New Jersey. Visit his blog at http://www.crazyapplepress.blogspot.com