Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of Beverly Jackson's "Every Burning Thing" (Wild Goose, Summer 2008)


One of the greatest and most vital tricks of life is valuing the past without being imprisoned by it. Beverly Jackson’s new collection of poems, Every Burning Thing, (Pudding House, 2008) presents us with a speaker who achieves that trick.
When a writer uses an indefinite pronoun like “thing” in a title, they invite the reader to speculate on the possible referents of that pronoun. Jackson helps us along in that speculation in every poem, not the least in the title poem where images of grief and despair make clear the speaker’s understanding that there is no time in the subconscious, that what “burned” as loss decades before, captured in images of Pompeii, the Hindenburg, a B17 bomber named The Big Bitch, still smolders as daily grief, fear, resentment, motivation, “the yearning undead” (“Resurrection”) in the present.
While the speaker recognizes that the past is always present, she also discovers that there is acceptance, understanding, and moving on. Thus, the voice of these poems is most often that of Randall Jarrell’s “Woman at the Washington Zoo” after the transformation, a speaker who experiences the return of “terrifying angels” who “dip into the bowl of my brain / to wash their long white fingers” (“Resurrection”). Surviving the crucible of life as a woman, the speaker emerges transformed. Freed of the self- and societally-imposed chains of the past, she becomes water,

not in water--
not swimmer, whale or porpoise plunging
under surface glint, corralled by ocean--

but . . .
the slack-jawed, spooky renegade
of slosh and swell, tidal flood,
blind mammoth rolled in slumber,
sexed up, trailing sperm, seaweed
in ceaseless undulations,
(To Be Water)

Not surprisingly, given the unifying conflict of this volume, these are, in the Blakean sense of the phrase, songs of experience. Having survived the trials of failed relationships, parenting, and loss, the speaker returns to writing, to herself, to self-expression and discovers in the poem “A Cycle”

The piles of rocks
about my feet are high--
some even reach my heart.
For years their forces
pelted me, but red welts
wilt with time and pen.
Within my palm I kiss each stone
before I lift my chin--and throw.

These experiences and this reclamation of self lead the speaker to a new embracing of life and possibilities as in the poem “Seasoned:”

This year May coaxes a shadow
behind the fence, dark-eyed kisses in a tub
of hot rain, dyeing her mouth the color of blooms,
promising, promising.

. . .
It won’t be July before company comes.
The clairvoyant nestled between her thighs
is sending out signals, tracking the leashes
tied to the ribs of lumbering men, synapses
popping in time with a tune, words too soft to hear.

Escaping the prison of the past, refusing regret, and opening oneself to the possibility of transformation leads the speaker even to pleasures in unexpected places, as in “Feeding Frenzy,” where the speaker and a compatriot discover the carefree comfort of post-menopausal sensuousness, where they become “like neutered queens, / lording it, eating earth, sky / and wild romaine.” Ultimately, experience and the shedding of the past lead the speaker to an understanding and satisfaction that surpass the fear of mortality, as expressed in “I Am Not Afraid of the Dead:”

I sleep in her nightgown,
wear her socks on cold mornings,
and while I brush my teeth,
she stares back at me. I am
smiling into the face of death.

I have keened in anguish
as mourners do; let guilt
gnaw on my mind--morsels
of remembrance chewed
and swallowed, a dutiful meal.

In the darkness of night
we laugh, she and I, speaking
of flesh flab, bone rot, sour breath.
All that pain in preparation for
carefree repose, the fist falling open.

Beverly Jackson’s Every Burning Thing is a series of poems full of inhabiting spirits, and like any spirit that touches us, the poems leave us momentarily chilled and shaken, and permanently changed, renewed, ever-so-slightly stronger in our beliefs about the world, our ability to stand on our own, ever-so-slightly more in touch with who we are.

Beverly Jackson is a poet, fiction writer, and artist living in Asheville, NC. She is the founder and former editor of Lit Pot Press, the e-zine Literary Potpourri, and the print journal Ink Pot. Her poetry and fiction hav appeared in over sixty venues, including Rattle, The Melic Review, Dead Mule, and Tattoo Highway. Her blog is at www.beverlyajackson.com

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