Oregon Ferry Review of Books

Edison Jennings. Reckoning. Durham, N.C. , Jacar Press, 2013.  ISBN 978-0-9845740-9-4. Paperback. 26 pages. $11.95

Reckoning  Edison JenningsIt is no coincidence that the first word in Edison Jennings's collection of poems, Reckoning, is “time.” The incisive, sensuous and formally satisfying poems that follow will try to “reckon” (in many senses) the passage of days and years, and a life's passage through the years, never failing to be honest about what is lost — everything, eventually —  though also quietly but firmly insisting that gains are possible, too, perhaps most acutely in the very recognition of the ravages. The voice that inhabits this book remains adamant about “marveling at his plenty of loss,” even while time, which slips into one poem in the person of a poisoned mouse, goes on “wedding me to death and all this / lush sadness left to the quick” (“Nuptials”). These poems offer a nuanced wisdom, never compromising the complexity of their understanding for an easy comfort or for an easy surrender to time's “slow-chapped power,” as Andrew Marvell once put it.

That first poem, “Reckoning I,” opens the book with what at first seems to be assurance: “Time, a star, sextant, and chart will fix / your place on the ocean's shifting page.” By the end of the poem, confidence has shifted to warning. Careful navigation may allow you to “[r]eckon your place, mark X on the chart,” but you will only “plot your course / to virgin beaches you'll never reach,” and, after all, the chart (or the poem, or memory itself) “will only reveal where you have been” not where you are going. Though Reckoning is elegiac in its memories of a southern childhood where apples were better and the longing for flight, both literal and metaphorical, was sharp, and though it becomes sorrowing in its poems for a lost daughter, it is never self-indulgent, and is most universal in those poems that seem most personal.

Reckoning is also informed by a sharp ear for the language and a feel for the shape of the poem, in terms both of poetic tradition — half the poems are blank-verse sonnets, and a few others flirt seriously with the form — and of how the tongue measures authenticity of utterance against the breath and the pulse. “Directions to a Ruin” is a good example of Jennings 's accomplishment in laying the music of the sentence over the music of the line.

            Follow Spoon Gap Road past the Free Will Church
            and find a wide-hipped chimney stub
            girdled with a snarl of berries, dark and sweet
            this time of year, rooted in the fireplace,
            blacksmithed pot-hook curled like a come-here finger,
            but the house is gone.

The hints of eroticism (“wide-hipped,” “dark and sweet,” “like a come-here finger”) remind us that the dilapidated farmhouse was once a site of intense human relationship and fertility, but the ruins also remind us that nothing, even what is founded in love, can last. But the “snarl of berries” around the chimney insists that there is still good reason for revisiting this place where so much seems to have been lost, that some sweetness persists at the heart of ruin, though transformed, if one will look for it

            where love's observance long ago succumbed
            to underbrush and new-growth oak and grief's
            alphabet weathered to a palimpsest
            on lichen-freckled slates. You might rest there,
            stretch out in the chimney shade and taste
            the wild blackberries, slightly tart with ash.

It is almost as if the blackberries are sweeter for having grown in a ruin, or at least the poem records a recognition that their hint of tartness makes the experience of tasting them seem so, their sweetness thrown into relief by the admixture of ash.

Because Jennings is acutely aware of the sounds and force of words, his poems repay close attention. One of the strongest poems in the book, “Old Bitch and Bone,” comes near to offering a philosophy of living, underlined and made persuasive by Jennings 's seemingly effortless feel for the rhythm of the iambic pentameter line:

            He envied his dog her bone, the way she shook
            and damn near shat while she sat, expectant,
            waiting to clamp and tooth it in the weeds,
            the way she cracked the shaft and fanged the fat,
            gristle and marrow and old bone mojo,
            every scrap, no part unchewed, unknown.

If we are inclined to follow the dog's example and attack the enjoyment of life with similar abandon, “every scrap, no part unchewed, unknown,” we are more likely to do so because the lines are not only true in the mind, but also true on the tongue, in the movement from the perfect iambic of “the way she cracked the shaft and fanged the fat” to the emphatic inversions and spondaic burst of “gristle and marrow and old bone mojo,” all woven lushly together with a vowel-music of As and Os that will be carried forward throughout the rest of the poem's fourteen lines.

The word “time” makes its second appearance in “Reckoning II,” which comes exactly halfway through the book and effectively divides it into two sections. Though the earlier poems allowed memories of a youth where “we skipped like calves / across the rich and sinful south” (“Rainstorm”) or of a boyhood infatuation with a girl who smelled “like toast and apples” (“Rocket Girl”), the later poems tend more toward an awareness of mortality and are darkened by the loss of a young daughter.

The loss of a child seems an impossible topic for poetry to treat adequately. And it is impossible — there is no “adequate” here. This is why we should be grateful that Jennings possesses more than a poet's craft of fine words, but also courage and magnanimity. The closing lines of the last poem in the book are some of the best:

            A neap tide of loss drawn high by the moon
            and vacuum you left seeps through the floorboards,
            pools in the corners, and laps up the stairs,
            until I retreat to the wreck of your room
            and wonder — the closest I come to prayer —
            are you warm out there beyond the world's rim?

The final word in Reckoning is “rim” — not “time” but a slant rhyme for “time.” Whether a conscious design by the poet or not, this word at the ending that makes a hollow half-clang with the beginning and the middle seems relevant to the structure of the book:  here we come up against the limit of life and knowledge and even of poetry, the border, the “rim,” where we can only wonder if even our prayers might go beyond.

No poems being written today combine craft and heart more seamlessly than these. Reckoning will call a reader back many times after the last page is turned.

 Edison Jennings bio:

Edison Jennings earned a BA while serving active duty as an enlisted aircrewman in the US Navy. After separating from the military, he completed an MFA at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. He lives in Abingdon , Virginia , with his son, John, and works as the director of the English Department and chairperson of the Division of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Intermont College . His poems have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies.

                                                                                                 — James Owens