When intensely felt historical experience intersects with language under extreme pressure, you might wind up with something like the poetry of Philip Jenks, which to my mind represents a kind of Appalachian écriture, the inscription of political, social, economic, and sexual difference onto and inside of the lyric. The title suggests the ongoing apocalypse that has penetrated to the fingers-ends of our culture, while also insisting--hopefully?--on its status as metaphor, a means of bringing the otherwise unsayable into contact with a reader's experience. The downright oddness, the gleeful perversity of Jenks's saying, keeps it local, keeps it, I dare to say, accessible. A shorter poem:
seroquel, ardent neural raid.
"you are incorrigible, simply incorrigible."
reflections of a dying paper route.
or was it boy. that was my intention
when he was bested at the helm,
when he was blankets by daylight
and mouthing sections of biblic'
portion, oozing at mandible.
Take a certain someone, add gun
and some radiation. "treat street."
the Hatchers had one under couch
for special haunts. He grips dripping
without days without number, just
without sail, without border, dead
time circling, circling (ah) del'very!
The poem hovers between storytelling ("reflections of a dying paper route") and metaphor so extravagant it almost ceases to be metaphor ("mouthing sections of biblic' / portion, oozing at mandible"), in this case evocative of Kafka's Metamorphosis, so as to capture the essential loneliness of the poem's two figures, the boy and the titular armed and irascible tenant, perpetually "circling" one another as the boy's failed attempt to deliver the newspaper results in "del'very," a neologism that encompasses religious deliverance, delving into the depths, and devilry. These maneuvers are entirely typical of the book's antic, anguished energy, and yet no two poems are much alike, particularly given the breadth of subject matter, which ranges from medico-theological parables ("you cannot leave the subject blank") to the ravages of history as it gets (mis)taught ("Seventh"), to homages and addresses to the likes of Hart Crane and Neil Young, to a tour-de-force and timely examination of state-sponsored violence ("Eichmann thanks Madeleine"), to what reads as autobiography ("Morgantown, West Virginia").
Jenks's intellectual and poetic touchstones are varied, but I find myself especially drawn to the almost Benjaminian mixture of politics and theology. The book's dedication thanks a number of rabbis, and the beautiful elegy "Mysterium Tremendum" is dedicated in particular to a Rabbi Berger of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina. According to his Poetry Foundation biography, Jenks is the son of an Episcopalian minister, and perhaps that's what put him in possession of something quite rare: a restless religious imagination at once skeptical and speculative in its consideration of the varieties of religious experience. I am reminded a little of the work of his friend Peter O'Leary and how his unabashedly mystical Catholicism insistently anchors itself to the things of this world, particularly the natural world, as in O'Leary's magnificent Phosphoresence of Thought. Jenks's work is grittier, performative in a different register. Here's an excerpt from (what a title) "Kill You Power Plant, Begins at Acts 2:1-13":
Gritty Decker's Creek overpass that Mistah Bee jumped from
exiled on his bicycle. I would skip a thousand kickball
Games for one phrase of his mad beautiful Black Jesus sentence
That trailed off the bridgely artifice
Spright and buggy, smeary glasses, his old school bike
Punctuated by the now bloody brown crik.
Before the time of the screen or even built bridge,
Bonehead crept across the lower beam, "protect nature."
The collage of registers here is unsurprising, even normative for a postmodern poem, but it's beautifully executed: look how each line maintains its integrity, the better to rub sparks against its closely cadenced neighbors: "Games for one phrase of his mad beautiful Black Jesus sentence / That trailed off the bridgely artifice / Spright and buggy..." But unlike so many postmodern collages there's nothing weightless here: the monads of lived local experience, of closely heard speech, slam into our "time of the screen" and, maybe, shatter it. It's rare for any poet--I will go on a limb here and say, any white poet--to combine the demotic and intellectual registers so effectively.
Back in 2002, Ben Friedlander published an essay about Jenks's first book, On the Cave You Live In (Flood Editions), titled "Philip Jenks and the Poetry of Experience" in Chicago Review. It was and is a provocative piece of criticism, using Jenks's work to argue a distinction between poetry as "a treasury of memorable statements" and poetry as "a particular experience we have of language." In some ways this is just a restatement of the old cooked-raw distinction, or of Charles Altieri's more magisterial distinction between "symbolist" and "immanentist" poetics, which in turn owes a debt to Schiller's dialectic of the naive and sentimental, Nietzsche's Apollo-Dionysus, and Jung's extravert/introvert. It all goes back to Wordsworth, for whom "poetic creation is conceived more as the discovery and disclosure of numinous relationships within nature that as the creation of containing and structuring forms" (Enlarging the Temple 17).
A poetic like Jenks's points, maybe, toward the discovery and disclosure of relationships within nature-culture, that hybridic zone in which we are all object-subjects and subject-objects, as conditioned by the "containing and structuring forms" that we create as by the rawer dimensions of creation that we struggle to structure and contain. It's a struggle that happens in and with language, a struggle that signifies aliveness, against the innumerable forces that conspire to confine us to the deadness of consumer choices disguised as freedom.
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of occasional reviews of books (mostly poetry but not exclusively so), by Chicago-area authors whose work is in my view underseen and undervalued. If you or someone you know is the author of such a work, let me know.