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(reproduced from Iambs & Trochees, Spring 2004)

Jennifer Reeser, Runner of Risks

  by X.J. Kennedy

   Review of:
Jennifer Reeser,
An Alabaster Flask
Word Press, Box 541106, Cincinnati, 2003
ISBN 0-9717-3717-7 (paper) $16.00

   The astute reader, spying Jennifer Reeser's name on this magazine as assistant editor, might think, "
Jaysus, why is Iambs & Trochees reviewing a book by somebody on the staff?  This is in-house puffery!"  The astute reader will be absolutely right.  But given the cartel of silence that confronts formalist poets these days, besides the tiny amount of attention that the year's 8,000 or so new poetry volumes will have to share, it's unlikely that despite its considerable merits,  An Alabaster Flask will be praised in the New York Review of Books, nor cop a National Book Award.  Dear astute reader, let me resort to blatant in-house puffery.  I'm assuming we dwell in the same house, that you care for verse you can understand, verse that has passion and energy, verse with a driving beat to it, verse that often plays the marvelous old game of rhyme, verse that takes work to write and whose failures (if any), are painfully obvious, or else you wouldn't be caught dead reading Iambs & Trochees.  Maybe you'd be checking out American Poetry Review, studying how to make your stuff looser and cooler.

  While I'm up on this warhorse, let me suggest that any poet who writes in rhyme and meter is taking an awful risk: taking a hike, as it were, through the valley of the shadow of death.  Writing in traditional form, it's easy to hit a clunker of a rhyme, or a jiggetty-jog measure; to fall flat on your face and appear ridiculous.  Writing free verse is a far safer game.  Bad free verse is seldom obviously awful, it's merely prosaic and boring.

  Which brings us to Jennifer Reeser's brave and risk-taking poetry.  Several distinguished peers are familiar with it already, for her back cover and her publisher's website (www.word-press.com) flaunt tributes from R.S. Gwynn, Gail White, A.E. Stallings, Rhina P. Espaillat, Alfred Dorn and Joseph S. Salemi.  Such a chorus indicates the company her work keeps.  It is related also to Sappho, Anna Akhmatova, Li Ch'ing-Chao, Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, all authors of poems that, in this collection, Ms. Reeser translates.  For a quick glimpse of her methods, consider her version of Shikibu's "Lying Here Alone."

Lying here alone,
not caring that my black hair
is all in tangles,
with yearning, I'm reminded
how once he would unwind it.

  A memorable little poem.  Its contrast between love and loneliness is made tangible by disheveled hair versus hair had been neatly braided, only to be undone in a lover's hands. 
Reminded/unwind it isn' t a perfect rhyme, but it manages to shut the poem with a bang.  There are too many confusing commas, I'd take out the one after yearning or else the one after tangles, and we don't know exactly what reminded the speaker of her absent man, if indeed we need to know; but the whole is of one piece, moving and resonant.  Sort of a Japanese "Western wind, when will thou blow, that the small rain down can rain?",  than which tiny Middle English masterpiece poetry doesn't get much better.

  But it's Ms. Reeser's completely original work that takes up the bulk of her book.  The perceptive R. S. Gwynn says that Reeser reminds him of an earlier generation of women lyricists: Edna Millay, Sarah Teasdale, Elinor Wylie.  The resemblance is there, all right, and although I have no idea which literary influences Ms. Reeser may have absorbed, her poems do at times have a certain Teasdaleish archness, a Millayish regret for loves gone by:

Not even in a dream did I allow
another love to lie here: even so,
why you prefer her mouth to my mouth now
my mouth, that bears a scar from years ago
should be no mystery to me...

  But, as Gwynn also perceives, Reeser is no copycat, she can speak in her very own voice.  Impressive, too, is the scope of her concerns.  Teasdale used to dwell on her own precious sensibilities, as if the world barely existed outside her own skin, but Reeser has poems that, without straining to be significant, incorporate the Berlin Wall, the founding of the United Nations, the Vietnam war, the fall of the World Trade Center.  She draws poems from her experience of parenthood , she's the mother of five, and somehow has found time to write poems.  One such poem that captured me, "Agatha Christie By Lamplight," is about letting the kids stay up late.  Here is the whole thing.

Within my living room once more,
the children drape themselves in ease
and green plaid comfort, watching midnight
television mysteries.

I've promised them itinerary
free tonight from bedtime rules.
Irregular endearments move
between us like lithe molecules

  at play, and then are gone, absorbed
into an atmosphere or mood --
interior arrangements loved
for their low-lighted rectitude --

  when one son shocks me (as he always
does), employing uniformity
of mind to solve the motliest
of plots.  He mocks enormity.

  I touch their late warmth, wishing them
simplicity beyond the threat
of the simplistic -- such cabals
they can't appreciate, as yet.

  Subtle, precise and true.  Reeser reminds me of Yvor Winters in her ability to handle abstractions as if they had solid weight, some of which she personifies, as in "Sapphics for Celebrity," which begins

In my dream, Celebrity, four pianos
scored the room, and you, on an antique sofa
near two dark-haired innocents, asked that I play
something immortal.

  She's taking a long chance, that the reader will believe Celebrity can be a person.  But triumphantly, she wins her gamble.  Here's the other half of this two-sapphic poem:

Dust motes grayed the air, and a sage green shadow
draped the walls in color like sifted powder.
I agreed, but wandered, untold, too many
keys to consider.

  A pretty good excuse for not coming up with anything immortal.  A more deeply moving poem, "For Mother, At Advent," moves through a grim Louisiana landscape with "a burned-out oyster bar" to conclude in a cemetery:

A teenager in a leather coat
has come and gone; a blue-jeaned blonde
as well.  Each one appeared to hold
her bouquet like some kind of bond.
I'm sorry for the things I said.
I'm sorry -- but that might as well
be mildew on these mouthless dead
whose headstones seem to hold down Hell.
One gaudy spray has blown across,
and quivers in a mass of gold,
but I can't stay to share its loss.
The light's become too cold.

  As you can tell from the title of her book, Reeser likes words that make music together.  Once in a while her quest for music stumbles, and the gamble is lost, as in one unsuccessful line in "The Fall," in which He (God) "stood aft aloofly." But on the whole, her poetry seems pretty certain and self-assured in its art.  The collection is the winner of the Word Press First Book Prize, a small contest run by the publisher, but it ought to have been a candidate for a Pulitzer.  Jennifer Reeser has got the goods, and I for one will stand watch for anything she writes.