Sara Burant on Laura Jensen

According to Audre Lorde, one of poetry’s tasks is “naming the nameless so it can be thought.” To fulfill this charge, poetry inhabits language fully, calling both upon somewhat quantifiable elements such as diction, form and syntax, and upon the poet’s imaginative capacities. The poetic or lyric imagination is a mysterious medium which not only sees but sees into and through. To activate this seeing or to give it room-to-roam, the poet uses language to engage all the senses while simultaneously opening herself to other more intuitive ways of knowing. Poetry seeks in part to capture what is otherwise fleeting, perceptions grounded in experience which nonetheless resonate beyond the material conditions of the poem’s moment. And yet poems are not museums in which artifacts, taken out of context, bear little or no relationship to their meaning in the experiential world. On the contrary, poems, good poems, successful poems, crackle with liveliness and urgency.

“You know that he is going to die/as soon as I tell you/he is standing beside me/his hair in spikes and dripping from his body. He turns his head./Canadian geese/all of them floating along the shore.” So begins Laura Jensen’s poem “The Red Dog” from her 1977 debut full-length collection Bad Boats. And how strange, how real. Both the speaker and the you she addresses experience an uncanny apprehension of the dog’s eventual death in the midst of his textured vitality. The dog, so solidly present in the poem, as embodied as language can render him, will one day no longer be, though presumably the speaker and the you will, at least for a time. But something happens in the poem’s last lines to further complicate our understanding, our experience of the poem and its metaphysics. Repetition of the line “You know that he is going to die” signals a shift, reinforced by the insistence of limited anaphora:

this is the time for it
this is the best time for it
while there is a way to vanish
while the geese are moving off
to be their hard sounds
as their bodies leave the water.

So much is going on here! The geese are vanishing from sight, not dying, and yet in vanishing they are being transformed into sound and not just any sound, hard sound, which conveys a kind of solidity, a lastingness, which is and is not consubstantiate with their bodies floating upon the water, their bodies leaving. If only the dog could leave this way, without suffering, and if only we could, too. Yet the poem is not especially sorry about death, its eventuality. The speaker seems in part to long for such a vanishment, to become sound, breath, vibration—what this and any poem is first and last, an impulse followed by an utterance followed by what lingers in the throat, the mouth, the chest as the words, spoken, return to air.

The Ecco Press published Bad Boats as part of its American Poetry Series. When the book appeared, Jensen was no stranger to publication, her poems having appeared in The New Yorker, Field, Antaeus, and other little magazines, as well as being collected in two chapbooks, Anxiety and Ashes and After I Have Voted. I was introduced to Jensen’s work in a craft class taught by Matthew Zapruder and immediately fell under its spell, locating hard-to-find copies of the book, as well as Jensen’s two subsequent full-length collections Memory (1982) and Shelter (1985), both from Dragon’s Gate, though Memory was reissued by Carnegie Mellon in 2006. The poetry publishing landscape of the late 1970s included John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language, Amiri Baraka’s Poetry for the Advanced, Jean Valentine’s The Messenger, and W.S. Merwin’s The Compass Flower. If I were to align Laura Jensen with a school or schools of poetry, I might say her work is New Surrealist with a Confessional bent, if by confessional we mean emotionally and imagistically taut, á la Sylvia Plath, or Confessional with a New Surrealist bent, occasionally New York School chatty or humorous. Which is to say her work both embraces and transcends these modes.

What arrests and moves me about Jensen’s work is first and foremost its logic, the precision of each poetic leap, that the poet absolutely trusts both the poems as enactments of discovery and the imagination which animates them. Such trust, I believe, allows her to take peculiar risks, as in the poem “I Buy Nothing:” “I buy nothing. I am nothing/like a sailboat just touching water/carrying a wake behind, I turn/like air on air.” The poem drops us into a curious place. The speaker buys nothing! What could this startling, even dangerous, declaration mean? If one buys nothing—purchases nothing, believes nothing—one cannot be manipulated, taken in. One is perhaps free. Buying nothing allows the speaker to claim she is nothing, evoking Dickinson’s Nobody. Just as Dickinson has a companion in her Nobodyness, a “we” appears in the second stanza, albeit in memory: “We crushed wisteria and camellias/to make perfume, thoughtless/as a scar or the sea…” Turning “like air on air” the speaker enters the past, a visceral recollection of childhood, its thoughtlessness like an old wound yet strangely ongoing and perhaps still potent, like the sea. This stanza complicates the poem, suggesting that the speaker is not as free as we had thought, or not free in precisely the way we’d thought.

The first section of the poem ends with this sentence: “Across the summer grass I walk,/a substance in the sun/that leaves a long black shadow,/truly, as if I lived somewhere.” The speaker is of a substance that leaves a shadow. She is also nothing. We don’t doubt these seeming contradictions because the two assertions have been linked by images, the sailboat—a thing—and a memory composed of tangibles—the act of crushing petals larger than the speaker’s hands. The shadow is left, not cast, and this simple word-choice allows the shadow itself to be understood as substantial, dimensional, spanning time and including loss.

As a condition of its freedom, the imagination is capable of holding two or more oppositions, of allowing them not only to be possible and true but co-existent. The imagination isn’t compelled to resolve this tension but rather lives into it—I almost said happily but that isn’t quite right. Willingly then. The imagination reaches past appearances to uncover and reveal unseen, unconsidered, even improbable relationships or linkages between things, events, happenings. It provides “tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.” (Abram, p.58) To the extent that poetry enacts these freedoms it can be said to be revolutionary, seeking to re-invigorate the always-tenuous connection between language, the phenomenal world and that which is immaterial yet embodied—feelings, memories, histories, the soul. Further “the poem places us in a state of heightened importance with a sense that everything matters intensely at the moment it is being experienced.” (Zapruder, p. 105) Inside a Laura Jensen poem, this is always true.

Of course in this—or any!—socio-political landscape, poetry that fully trusts the imaginative capacity of its maker offers a homeopathic remedy for dangerous rhetoric, scapegoating, language-as-violence and fake news. Jensen is a poet-seer whose imagination is wide awake. The poems crackle with energies perceived imaginatively, complementing what the senses know. “Listen, nothing can stop speaking,” says the speaker in “The Complex Mechanism of the Up.” (BB, p. 36) In this poem speech is understood as sound, scent, touch, and, too, the sensory apprehension of what exists inside feelings, situations:

Your flushed cheeks are looking at the sorrow
in the earth, the beautiful scent of standing.

It is hard to believe so much sadness,
don’t blame yourself, you have seen it
carrying daffodils into the gong, then silence.

Listen, nothing can stop speaking,
her dress is rustling, he coughs,
couples rattle in the beams of the camera.

Sadness carries flowers into the gong. Standing has a beautiful scent. Actions, feelings, objects, people, people in relation to other people and things, all of these “things” are dynamic, energetic, charged both by their qualities of being, and by the attention that calls them into relationship with the speaker, with us, attention which finds expression most often through language. The Old English and Old Saxon origins of our word “thing” point to nouns meaning assembly, council, matter, conference, transaction, or object. Norwegian ting signifies a public assembly and also a creature, a being. At the core or heart of the word lies this sense of things existing in relation to other things, implying aliveness, consciousness. In this way standing, which puts us in relation to the earth, can have a scent, because the standing itself has an essence, a beingness.

Jensen’s insistence on the aliveness of things and her broad understanding of what things are instill in her work a kind of shamanic power. In some shamanic traditions, things are believed to exist among us as entities that transact a manner of business, the business of speaking themselves. In Jensen’s poems, a lawn’s attention “grows up at her like rising/pinnacles,” and roses “crawl the wall/like savages, in their own kind of logic/and catharsis…” (“Hot Spell,” Memory, p. 28); “Night, and in the green,/great beasts of dandelion/make these hoofprints on the parking;” and “Color is a little fire.” (“Amigo Acres,” BB, p. 49)

The poems often reveal a self in extremity casting about for an anchor in a world destabilized—at least in part—by this self’s own perceptive powers, her awareness. A self who accepts her porousness with a curious ambivalence and who struggles with the potency of the free imagination. If, as Shelley asserted, “poetry strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms,” then Laura Jensen undertakes this work with a mixture of determination, delight and trepidation. Not all energies are kind.

In the poem “Statue Maker” the speaker witnesses some children playing a game in which each is swung around by the statue maker then let go to fall still in a pose. As a child, I played this game on summer evenings: the lawn in front of our house, a passel of neighborhood kids, the exhilaration of being swung and of assuming the attitude of a statue whose identity only I knew. The poem captures the breathless wonder and strangeness of a game played largely in silence, without motion. The children’s very motionlessness is occasion for the neighborhood’s other inhabitants to become audible, apprehendible: “The garden breathes the sounds, trusting/by the stakes in its heart. The hoe writes/in the tool shed. Rust loosens the lattice/in the scenery of sleep.” (BB, p.52) Of course the garden is made of living matter that grows, but here it trusts, is capable of feeling, feeling which comes by the wounding of its heart.

The speaker of these poems is enchantingly, and almost painfully, vulnerable. I can’t think of another poet whose work conveys such a sense of openness in encountering the world and its energies. I wonder if this vulnerability comes from trusting the imagination and its revelatory powers.

The way the garden shines
through fence slats as you pass,
the way the big moon rises
with an edge in shadow,
you see that once there was happiness.
This is the way to call it back:
Come back! Come back right away!
I am giving up neatness for you. (“Happiness,” BB, p. 48)

I absolutely love these lines: “Come back! Come back right away! I am giving up neatness for you.” In this moment of the poem, the speaker finds humor in a situation of otherwise heartbreaking loneliness and fear. Happiness can be addressed, implored, reasoned with, bargained with. It’s “a thread to find,/in flowers simple in the carpet.” The poem turns dark when the speaker must go looking for happiness by allowing the layers and textures of reality to enter, even to pierce, to wound: “I was afraid/when I knew who searched the fields/from age of ten. I was afraid/when I saw horses grazing./But happiness has no better argument than courage.” Some formal choices stand out here. Placing the adjective simple after the noun doubles its power—simple flowers and flowers simple in the carpet. As well, the repetition of “I was afraid when” emphasizes what the speaker has had to overcome—fear she’s been intimate with since age ten.

The poem “Here in the Night” is similarly concerned with happiness and fear as proximal states. As the speaker waits for her bouillon to brew she imagines the happiness of drinking it. Meanwhile the world of things carries on—and again she addresses the things, granting them agency: “Train, go and whistle. Cars, make a sound like/a terrible wind in the huge full trees./ The leaves will spin down to the street/to be brown and to rustle, rustle…” (BB, p. 60) The world carries on, somewhat frightfully. In this moment of the poem she is grateful to be alone, though it is not always so: “The morning was worse!/When I feel bad I wonder why they do not come/to help me…but who are they? And what are they, but alone?” Something about the “huge full trees” (words which make me think of a child’s drawing of trees) and the leaves spinning down allows the speaker to recognize the aloneness others experience. The poem ends with a dog barking “as if it were caring for me.” Energies are always passing between and among humans and other beings and things.

There’s a way in which this poet-seer, through the speech-act of writing poems, making her imagination and interior life available to us, heals a primal wound, one perpetuated by silence. This may be a wound of separation. It may be a wound inflicted by our culture’s over-reliance on rational logic which dulls the imagination and our emotional lives and keeps us confined. The word vulnerable descends from late Latin vulnerabilis, wounding, which in turn comes both from the verb vulnerare, to wound, injure, hurt or maim, and the noun vulnus, wound. These origins suggest the act of causing a wound and the wound itself, the one who wounds and the wounded one.

The wound in Jensen’s work is never explicit but seems to arise from one or both of these conditions: an acute awareness of the precariousness of the benevolent energies and the experience of the limitations of human relationship. Simply being alive among things and other people and beings that are also alive brings both—and often simultaneously—happiness and great pain, occasioning the “formal feeling” from which the poems come. Some experiences of pain seem to be quite personal: “Oh, friendship,/see how the cold has fallen down on me!” (“Writing Your Love Down,” BB, p.56) Other poems reveal a speaker recognizing a woundedness that isn’t precisely hers, pain that emanates from the world, the world-body, the assembly of things, as in “The Complex Mechanism of the Up,” quoted above.

Repetition in poems lends an incantatory quality to the words, a summoning. If hurt is summoned into the vessel of the poem, perhaps it may, in a measure, be healed. Here’s some of the poem “Dull Brown,” from Jensen’s third book Shelter:

Hard to wish
the fragments of the jam jars
cleared of their spattered shadows,
and the sky again naïve
or at least blasé or calm with buds,

the dishes and teacups
set numerous and numinous
on whole mats and whole saucers,
and all the china dolls
offered back their small fingers,
offered back their hollow skulls.

Easier when a bird flies by
and flies by smug because
it builds a nest out of nothing
and builds a shell out of love,

the love that pecks away at hearts
chip, chip so mindlessly to itself…

But when I step out I begin to sob.

Hard to wish
for the wings of an angel, easy
to wish for the wings of a bird
when they are and I am not and it is
so hard to be human, so hard. (p. 12)

All the repeated words and phrases enact an experience of fragmentation, of chipping and spatter, even as the twoness of the repetitions gestures toward a kind of wholeness—the time when the teacups and dishes weren’t chipped, perhaps, and the china dolls were unbroken—a childhood, then, or a nostalgia for a childhood which wasn’t. “Easy/to wish for the wings of a bird/when they are and I am not…” What quality do the birds possess that the speaker does not? They are present to themselves, their bodies-in-the-moment. Whereas the speaker moves back and forth between the present and the past with its complications of loss and sorrow. The poem ends with these lines: “There’s the same dull brown/on the best wing, on the best trunk/of a tree.” Moving from jars, dishes and china dolls to birds and trees, the speaker moves from longing and wishing to pain and recognition and finally a kind of redemption, born of the second-sight which allows her to trace resemblances. Which allows her to make poems.

I want to take a risk now, suggesting that Laura Jensen’s work inhabits “queer-space.” Not specifically queer in the sense of non-heteronormative gender identity or sexuality, but perhaps semantically queer in the way it embraces its logic, the way it sees the world as open and non-conforming. One source for the word queer is the PIE word terkw, to twist or turn. Again and again, Jensen’s poems twist away from the expected, gesturing toward a queerly expansive vision. Take, for example, “The Cloud Parade.”

In deference to the cloud parade
the horse has shed its winter red,
stamped its last horseshoe out of the shed
and left no forwarding address.

The heavens turn furniture,
attics and beds, men with mustaches
heels over heads; they cover the sun
to a gloomy shade,
in deference to the cloud parade.

Scarves! Echoes! Pavilions!
The meat grain in bacon, the star-stun
in roast, the bone down the well, the moon
down the wane, the smoke from the fireplace
beautifully made,
in deference to the cloud parade. (BB, p. 37)

The speaker is watching clouds shapeshift as they move across the sky. The often iambic meter, especially in lines one and two and in stanza two, suggests childhood, a childlike intelligence. The horse has shed the heaviness of winter and gone off who knows where—freedom! Then comes a topsy-turvy profusion of images, as of a house being turned out for spring cleaning. It’s liberating but also menacing, perhaps because such an up-and-over-turning is so unpredictable, as is the free imagination. Unpredictable but also willing to risk uncertainty. Willing to not conform.

Scarves and pavilions, ok, we’ve seen those in cloud formations. But echoes? The rest of the poem contains them, I think, as each image that follows reaches further and further outward. Yes, one might see in clouds striations like the fat and meat in bacon. The star-stun of roast surprises, suggesting as it does both the stunning of the animal before it’s slaughtered and timelessness, the apparent immutability of stars. Meat feeds us, and meat is dead flesh. The living animal unmade into meat is both nourishing and strangely, queerly, beautiful. Pairing meat and clouds performs the marriage of earth and air. The last three images take the unmaking even further, to bone, the waning moon, smoke. And all “in deference to the cloud parade.”

Deference. What a curious word choice. Transformation as enacted by the cloud parade makes a superior claim over things and people, including the speaker. Not only does everything speak, but everything is remade, though loss is part of this remaking. The world is unaccountably, marvelously dynamic. It is whole, and incomplete.

Poetry makes evident the truth that there are no barriers, that boundaries or lacunae may be superseded or bridged by acts of imagination. In this poetry bears a strong resemblance to shamanism. If poetry is, as Audre Lorde asserted, “the skeleton architecture of the world,” then it is similar to what the shaman encounters, moving freely between upper and lower realms where live spirits or energies that uphold, sustain and influence the material world or ordinary reality. The shaman risks his or her wellbeing, becoming vulnerable to untamable energies, in service of the people. Just so, a poet like Laura Jensen, in communion with otherness, asserts in poem after poem that language matters, that apparent oppositions and contradictory states not only co-exist but enrich and expand both language and the lives of us who are shaped by it.

            Fire on the edge
of a pine woods as it walks through
each tree, then through two trees as though
each cross were nailed one to one more
like a truth. It does not grow made.
But it takes what stands too still
in its hands, which have no distance
and no number, like her heart now
which does not know
                                    but reaches out.

But when she puts black dirt in pots
it makes her round. She takes on shadow
and dimension. It is an odd
sort of worship but all she knows

the sun    the earth    the woman    and
a star she sees just above her. (“Sun-burned Woman,” Shelter, p. 31)

Works Cited

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. R.W. Franklin, Editor. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1999.
Jensen, Laura. Bad Boats. New York: The Ecco Press, 1977.
Jensen, Laura. Memory. Port Townsend: Dragon Gate, 1982.
Jensen, Laura. Shelter. Port Townsend: Dragon Gate, 1985.
Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.
Shelley, Percy. “A Defense of Poetry” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Editors. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Zapruder, Matthew. Why Poetry. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.