A Review of Living Things by Stephanie Lenox
Charles Jensen’s Living Things, a chapbook of fourteen poems addressed to a former lover whose suicide is revealed in "Evidence," the first poem, converses with the dead in a spare and systematic elegy that moves from despair toward the living world. In "Shopping," the speaker searches for something black to wear to the funeral and describes his "blank expression onto which / any person’s misery can be hung." These lines can be likened to Jensen’s tone throughout: plain and reserved, like the jacket the speaker purchases, something we all might wear.
Though the subject of mourning is universal, Jensen’s poems sustain a voice of privacy. Addressed to a lover, the poems are matter-of-fact and bare. The lines break at predictable pauses. The syntax follows a basic declarative structure. In "Evidence," the speaker’s response to the lover’s death is described thus:
My head explodes.
My hands and feet explode..
Someone zips you up inside a bag.
Each poem is contained on a single page, and within each, short lines and large stanza breaks give way to white space. Jensen holds readers at arm’s length while at the same time making the poems accessible, giving just enough detail for readers to glimpse the private mechanisms of grief.
These poems are surprising not in their structure, diction, or experimentation, but in the direct address and intimacy of tone, as demonstrated in "Debts":
Today I found a scrap of paper
where you’d scrawled your name.
I hate the world for its
traces of you.
Don’t write me again.
The dead leave behind the mundane details of their existence: bills, the smell of cologne on a sweater, magazine subscriptions. In "Cruel World," the speaker puzzles over the equation that subtracts a life and leaves only possessions. After the funeral, the flowers begin to wilt and the speaker in "Flowers" wants to know
.whose idea this was,
filling up death
with hundreds of smaller deaths.
In one of the most startling poems of the collection, "The Cat," the speaker hears a kitten crying and discovers it in the engine of his car. His response is terrifying:
I let it drop.
I let it go. Really
what choice did I have.
The tone is flat. The question is not punctuated; the voice is not lifted by the end. Everything is charged and held still by loss.
There is nothing uncommon about death as a subject for poetry. In fact, Robert Hass has speculated that all poetry falls into two modes: odes or elegies. Jensen’s chapbook is elegiac and occasional, written in response to a loved one’s death. While the subject deals with a contemporary experience, Jensen’s work begins with tradition. The couplet is by far the dominant structure of these poems, yet all but one, "Mail," deviate from the pattern. The poems respond to a recent death, and there is gravity to them, a quiet tension between public and private grief, contemporary and traditional mourning, life and death.
It is the interior voice of Jensen’s chapbook that also allows moments of light in a generally dark sequence. In "Debts," the speaker jokes about the lover "joining the only certainties we know / in life: death and taxes." "Wake Ecstasy" describes a room full of ex-lovers "scampering around like oily rats." In the same poem, the speaker pokes fun at the dead, saying that "in ghost form, [he]’d choose to be thinner." There is the ironic incongruity of a subscription notice for Men’s Health arriving for the deceased. These are inside jokes spoken from inside the experience, gallows humor of a sort that allows for moments of levity.
The title, Living Things, reminds me of my short stint as an English composition instructor where I banished the use of the word "thing" in the classroom among other words I considered overused or lacking specificity. I held a word funeral during which I played a dirge on my portable CD player and had students toss in words they thought should rest in peace. My goal was to get students to think about words as living tools they choose to create meaningful essays. Jensen resurrects words I might have been tempted to lay to rest: "things," "body," "living." He calls attention back to what is left, such as in "Remains": "I see you / with the expert eye of having held you." The consistency of voice, the thematic structure, the directness of the address all make this a successful chapbook, but it’s Jensen’s expert and exacting eye that makes this work a living thing.
Jensen’s chapbook has been awarded the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Prize and will be published by Thorngate Road Press this month. More poems from this chapbook can be found at No Tell Motel (week of 9/11/2006) and Merge Poetry (Summer 2006).
Living Things: Shopping | Cruel World | Matter | Remains | Last Apparition
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