Listening for Earthquakes by Jasmine Dreame Wagner

Listening for Earthquakes

Jasmine Dreame Wagner

Caketrain, 2012

Perfect bound, 103 pages

Review by PQ Contributing Editor Kaitlin Keller

In a powerful and emotionally vivid sequence of poems, Jasmine Dreame Wagner juxtaposes the purity and divinity of nature with the decaying backdrop of human industry and asks, what of the human soul? The opening poem, “Black Swans,” is both inquisitive and provocative and invites the reader to venture deeper, to go beyond our ability to see with our eyes. As the title, Listening for Earthquakes, suggests, Wagner invokes our other senses to awaken our spirit:

            But what of our poor view of what it is to see

            If all we have to see has been seen…


And the poem further dares us to step up and accept the challenge offered:

            Are we strong enough to strike our own matches?

Do we dare see what we’ve made? What we’ve done? What we’ve destroyed? Who we really are?

The poems in this collection are heavily anchored in concrete images that appeals to all of our senses. Wagner is a talented wordsmith with a commanding voice, and like a master artist she paints her canvas with effortless strokes and with every possible color and shade. The scope of images is immense, and the language is both phenomenal and fresh. She knows how to capture a beautiful image, as with my favorite line in the book:

            Dusk peels back a sky dark as an amethyst.

A major theme throughout the work is the contrast of the beauty of nature with the urban decay of manmade structures, now either abandoned or in ruins. One of these structures discussed is Greenpoint Terminal Market, which we are told at the end of the book is an old warehouse complex in Brooklyn, New York, that has since burned down. Wagner says:

            Ruin is a cultured pearl.

Ruin is something created over time—not an accident—by the hand of man. Ruin brings trauma to the once pure landscape of nature, and the nature that persists there must do so through the cracks of ruin. Even pigeons must fly through “wireless slate skies” to roost. There is a sense of artificiality, of poisonous elements pertaining to all things manmade.

The poetic form itself is sometimes unconventional and experimental. Prose poems are found alongside formal structures and verse with creative utilization of white space. One poem in particular, “There Is No Part of the Body That Hasn’t Been Pierced,” is a horizontal poem, and one must turn the book to read it. Later in the work Wagner uses lighter shades of ink, forming verse that can be read numerous ways. This work is meant to be seen as much as it’s meant to be read.

The poem “Checks and Balances Haunt Our Organs” carries the major theme of the book: the contrast of nature and man. We wish to be as pure as nature—nature is good, divine, ordained, and innocent, while man and manmade objects are venomous and incapable of purity.

            As we wish

            to be useful as leaves are new. To be felt

            as sun on a rug by a lover’s cat. To be silver

            deer in moonlight on a hospital lawn

            and equally as quick. These things are the same

            thing as heaven.

Wagner reminds us in no unspecific terms that those things to which we aspire cannot be attained. We want to commune with nature and find our place—a place of piety and innocence—try to find what it all means amongst the confusion of technology and modern life, but to be capable of such chastity would be like attaining heaven.

Kaitlin Keller received her MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her latest literary venture involves raising awareness of the “novel in verse”—a hybrid genre which blends elements of poetry and verse with the formulaic structure of fiction novels. She is also currently penning the sequel to her first manuscript, Siren. She is a fanatical music lover and karaoke singer. Never dwelling long enough to call one place home, she currently resides in Manlius, New York with her husband and her constant companion, Fizzgig, her faithful Shih Tzu.