The Impossible Magic of Becoming
by Jennifer Denrow
No word floats without an anchoring connection within an overall structure.
– Stanley Fish
Should every poem in a linked sequence be as strong as the sequence itself? Should the poem be able to function as a self-contained object d’art, independent of the poems that come before or after? Should each poem in a thematic series – like the best behaved darlings of new criticism – start with its beginning and end with its end, or at least be read that way and not found lacking?
Jennifer Denrow’s debut full-length collection California answers these questions with a firm “No.” Throughout the collection, Denrow creates an overall structure that functions a bit like DNA; a map of genetic code is conveyed to every cell in the body. Because of a shared code among the poems, the book isn’t a mass of cells; it’s an organism that consists of the interdependence of its parts. The poems beget each other, and the generative relationship is a part of the poems, not just the links that connect them.
California is a book in three acts and a prelude. The first act, “California,” and the third act, “A Knee for Life,” are both sequences. The second act represents what the poet Erika Meitner would call a “mix-tape” collection: fourteen poems ostensibly not linked to each other. But to assert that they lack cohesion because they are not part of a linked series would be misleading. The second act shares its DNA with the two sequences despite the formal differences.
California is about different states of existence and whether or not the “real” is the ideal state to pursue. In the prelude poem, “How the mind works still to be sure,” the speaker creates a field by hanging blank sheets of paper all over the house. She then states,
Now, when people come over, they think
they’re lost and when I tell them they’re not, they say they’re
beginning to feel like the field and it’s hard because they know
they shouldn’t but they do and then they start to grow whiter
and whiter and then they disappear.
Throughout Denrow’s collection, the fear of disappearing is palpable, but so is the speakers’ fascination with an existence that isn’t grounded in the real. Denrow plays with this tension with her insistent use of “I.” Denrow’s “I” isn’t a confessional identity, nor is it a repository where a unified subjectivity solidifies. Her “I” is a location of conflict where knowledge of what is and awareness of what it might be duke it out. And that conflict creates an “I” that is self-generating; it splits and splits again. Compelled to remain in the realm of the real, and driven to locate a self in the realm of the desired, the “I” must be two places at once, at least while the border between real and fantasy is immutable.
If I lived in California, I would buy an iguana. I would meet a lot of nice
people. They would make kind remarks about the decision to follow
Desire is also the most tangible aspect of the speaker. When she expresses her urgency, she resorts to her body. Trying to convey her need to her husband, she says,
I want to go so bad I clench my fist
hard in the air, I push my finger into
his chin and cry: It feels like this, I say,
I need it this bad.
And as California takes on both the ephemerality of the place the “I” imagines and the reality of her desire, the interdependence of the poems create a work that no part – no single poem – can fully represent. For example, when California is introduced in the first poem of the series, Denrow writes:
I’m losing my head over this:
this is what the doll said when you pulled its head
from its body;
all the girls laughed.
I’ll move to California. I should
go alone. I’ll go
with the knowledge of fake
snow. I’ll ask my father to bring me.
In these few lines, Denrow begins to build the DNA for the poem’s structure: the bodily expression of desire, a conflicted self, the rendering of California as a real entity but also the embodiment of desire, and finally, the contradictory nature of an object of desire (it exists, but it isn’t what you desire, and what you desire doesn’t exist). Yet if the reader reads the last poem – which is constructed from the first poem’s DNA – outside of the sequence, much of its significance is lost:
The living room’s dark now.
The streetlight comes through the window like a forgotten angel.
By this time it’s apparent that I’m not leaving for California today.
I should go to sleep.
I’ll leave tomorrow.
Maybe I’ll meet someone who’s going there.
They’ll casually mention it and I’ll say I was thinking about going there
This is tragic – this self in limbo, caught between fear and desire and unable to realize the idealized identity that would become real in the existent/non-existent California. But it is impossible to demonstrate this without delineating the full arc of the relationship between the two selves throughout the seventeen poems. Which is why this particular sequence is really, really good. It isn’t just a masterful example of extended metaphor and sustained motif; it is a poem about becoming that becomes itself.
You put your thumb in front of your eye.
This is the world now.
But Denrow doesn’t stop with the assertion that perception determines reality. She complicates it further by suggesting, in “The Doctor’s Office,”
You can explain everything
to me and then I can explain
it to you and we can see
In a book where the self is portrayed as vulnerable to disappearing or not existing at all, a reality based on the self’s perception is either shaky at best or limitless with possibility. While Denrow embraces the possibilities, she doesn’t shy away from the scariness of a reality based on subjective perception. For Denrow, the sky serves as the perfect conceit to contain (or not contain) the boundlessness of self and existence. It appears over and over again in Act 2, and at one point Denrow writes,
If you’re not fond
of the sky, there isn’t one.
In theory, we are likely trading
it for the idea of falling.
In directly addressing the reader, Denrow doesn’t allow us our stable perch of other, our fixed identity as reader, our selves as outside the frightening possibility of disappearing. She pulls us in, she forces us to commiserate, she slips a little of the DNA into our bloodstream.
Denrow punctuates the point by beginning the section with a snippet from Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
The stones – who would believe it, had we not
The unimpeachable witness of Tradition? –
Began to lose their hardness, to soften, slowly,
To take on form, to grow in size, a little,
Become less rough, to look like human beings…
This is from the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha. After Zeus sent the flood that ended the Bronze Age, Deucalion and Pyrrha landed in their ark on Mount Parnassus. Under direction of the Oracle of Themis, they tossed stones (the bones of their mother) over their shoulders, and the stones became people. The connection between the creation of people from stone and the creation of people from wood may seem a little heavy-handed, but Denrow handles the pacing of revelation impeccably.
In the epistolary exchange between Bergen and Charlie, Denrow again examines the construction of reality, this time through the conflicting perceptions of a person that exists and one that doesn’t.
Charlie writes to Bergen of the sky and birds: limitless possibility and the creatures that inhabit it.
Even in the stage light
your birds are not quiet.
Your hand is a little colder today. Are you feeling well?
Has anyone ever told you your hands are like soft, skyless
Bergen writes to Charlie of Charlie’s carrying case, one tangible and narrow reality.
I only shut your case [discarnate, custodial] because of the draft.
Darkness is what happens sometimes.
And while there is conflict between them, there is also conflation. Bergen paints clouds inside Charlie’s case, and Charlie helps to build Bergen’s case (coffin). Their existences merge, as do their worlds, though Denrow refuses to reveal whether they merge into reality or evanescence. At this point, there may not be much of a difference.
It bears repeating that the arc of the collection – the structure, the conveyance of DNA – is really quite extraordinary. Denrow moves from 1) an “I” that explores the space between evanescence and existence, and that which stabilizes existence (desire), to 2) a “you” and an “I” whose different perceptions create different possibilities of existence, to 3) a “you” and an “I” whose unstable existences deconstruct the binary between the reality that exists and the reality that doesn’t.
In the end, Denrow offers no resolution. As she writes in the voice of Bergen, “I wasn’t trained for conclusions. I have come to know each pause. The / sky unmanageable.” California presents a liberating but terrifying conundrum. If the act of becoming is unstable, if the paths are multiple, if some are real and some are not but none is more or less valid, what is to stop us from becoming the creation of someone else’s desire? And when that desire wanes, what is to stop us from slipping away?
Michele Battiste is the author of two poetry collections: Ink for an Odd Cartography (2009) and Uprising (forthcoming, 2013), both from Black Lawrence Press. Her poetry reviews have appeared in Rain Taxi and on Rattle.com. She lives in Colorado where she raises funds for organizations undoing corporate evil.