Mayapple Press, 2015
Paper, 100 pages, $15.95
We know from the first few lines, from the poet’s first remarkable observations, that this is not your grandad’s book of verse. “The Problem with Pilgrims” opens the volume, and therein suggests how narrative and lyricism may work splendidly together, complement each other. Poets and poetry readers know that they rarely do. Jessica Goodfellow’s work convinces us that she can produce just such alchemy.
I want to offer at the outset a note on structure. Goodfellow uses white-space, often experimentally, to the best advantage of the poem. We find several long poems, many clever prose poems, some that rhyme, a few that scan. Her work is informed by form, suggesting how deeply she has read the work of the masters. Her titles are often a delight—none more so than this one from her Eigengrau collection: “Pity the Blind Man Who Has Married the Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau.” The wonderful irony here is of course that the German word means a shade of dark gray. She knows the grays of the world.
Goodfellow’s poems suggest a style and voice, indeed an attitude that challenges such core themes as religion, family, love/sex/death. The poet’s mill has been renewed. Let’s look in on a re-telling of the Garden of Eden myth.
God let Adam name the beasts of the Earth.
In turn, Adam let Eve name the long-legged birds
he’d seen her watching, with their built in
backup plans. He let her.
How did he think he could stop her? Still,
somehow the fact of his listening
perplexed her so that she gave them
names sounding only close to what
she had wanted to say: egret, bittern, crane.
The pilgrims must have let your sisters name something.
Officious men and self-appointed religious leaders embrace the exercise of control, misogyny, the presumption of status. Goodfellow’s aim is true and she scolds delightfully. One more line from this poem demands its moment: “The problem with pilgrims is they don’t entertain counterexamples.” No, and they never will. That’s why they are stuck in the persona of “pilgrim.”
Let’s move ahead to a poem that I find particularly strong. Some poems will seem more visceral than others, and of course each reader will interpret a piece of literature, a poem or a good short story, through his or her own personal history, our autobiographical eyeglasses. I am taken with the work the title is doing here. Try this excerpt. The poem is titled “How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There:”
The town where my father was born
was long ago swallowed up
by the copper mine it was birthed to serve:
My first-hand experience of a parent
eating his child. Since we could not visit
the town we stood instead at the edge
of a mile-deep pit, watching trucks
corkscrew the walls until they disappeared.
And that quickly we know, we are asked to ponder, what remains of what we thought we once knew – could hold on to. Instead, we make do. And yet . . .
Before we left I bought myself
at the mine gift shop a ring, a copper band
of hearts that turned my finger green
and soon snapped in two. I handed one half to my father
tossed the other into the pit, [. . . .]
Eventually, we lose sight of pretty much everything we once thought we needed, don’t we?
The poet is not finished channeling the daughter. It is herself; yet, the persona is every one of us. Poems that strike a chord of universality are always the strongest. Consider “The Factory.” When a father speaks his last words, are we attentive? What happens when the wife, the children, cannot agree on the precise words? Had he not spoken of chaos? Yes, they all agree, but just how? We must be clear.
. . . Suddenly she wonders if her father is watching her
watching her son watch the praying mantis watching the caterpillar
playing dead. Windows within windows within something window-shaped.
[later] . . . there is a blind spot in her blind spot in the shape of
a heart in chaos, or chaos in a heart, red on black, or vice versa.
This poet is concerned with the senses, what we see and do not see, what we hear indistinctly. What we feel. And that is the essential work all good poets must do. We need bright, flashing signals to guide our way, clarions to warn, barriers to protect. But we so often pay no attention. Why do we turn away? Do we choose to ignore what we are better off heading? Does any of it matter? Here is the third stanza from a particularly fine poem titled “Self-Portrait, with Vertigo.”
Once from the window of a train I watched a crane
take flight, leftward leftward up, into an ocular orbit;
it was hours before I could escape. It hardly happens now;
the doctor was correct: I simply don’t look there.
We have learned not to look. We fill in the blanks, individually choosing where and when to be deaf and blind. When to stay on the train. When to get off and stay off. Now living and teaching in Japan, Jessica Goodfellow has given us much to think about. So much to savor.