Direct not contrived, empathetic not sentimental, gasp-inducing not glib, the poems in Jenny Browne’s first perfect-bound collection, At Once, may make you stop to see how, page after page, she can be so winning.
At Once alternates between pieces in regular stanzas and those in verse paragraphs of varying length. The poems are usually set in places locatable in a gazetteer, and there’s a consistency to the speaking voice that leads me to assume Browne works from (her own) life. That voice is excitable, intermittently to the point of not making sense, but only intermittently. She’s quotably sensual (“And buddy what do you mean/Your mustache is older than I am?”), though the key word of the book, tissue, indicates an interest in internalized feeling mere touch only skirts:
The mouth attached
to the hands gripping
the feet says this
is deep tissue.
And the tissue says
This satisfying physicality comes with wit and an affect as companionable after a hundred pages as at the first; almost every poem starts with a flourish, while the better ends are more pause than hard stop. Her metaphors bring enormous changes of scale as they sucker-punch the doubting reader: A morning glory depicted in the opening poem starts predictably as a “white trumpet,” only to grow into its
of color all
open to the oceanic
sort of end, thrashing red
snapper on the line,
an entire face falling
at the glacier’s
Just as her expansive imagination sees the moment when the bloom is blown as the catastrophic change it is (for the flower, anyway), she tracks a parallel transformation of her feeling, making an offhand comparison that may or may not point to a subterranean subject of the poem, and arriving at devastation as quietly as possible:
Flower turning back
to the used-up
as the stillbirth?
Just as much work.
You don’t know how much
you can really give.
You don’t know how to live
but at once.
(“For the Morning”)
Pivoting on parallels and yoking opposite extremes are rhetorics that have powered the work of a select cast from Blake to Mlinko, and Browne shares also their fascination for pileups and everyday brutality:
Drug test pap smear oil change all
in the short of a single day.
Fluids in a row like ducks of course
only I don’t even get high
since the time freshman year
feeding the ducks on Lake Mendota
when the mallard crowd turned
on the female, surrounded her, clamped
the lean neck and pushed until
she drowned white belly up before
our six-stunned bloodshot eyes.
(“Testing the Waters”)
In the most purely American of her oscillations, Browne speaks home truths as she ranges around the world, doing stints in West Africa and Tibet. Sensibly, she renders these locales no more exotic than Florida and Minnesota. Naomi Shihab Nye and Maureen Owen are two precursors in play, and like them Browne most courts ingratiation when she’s away. But even in these poems there are details I can’t shake, wish it though I might, such as “The jar of mayonnaise/she opened last month” out on a shelf in Sierra Leone.
Some of Browne’s excited and dazed—innocent—quality may come out of her work teaching writing to children in the schools of Texas; children in and out of school figure in several poems.
All the kids I’m driving home say
this is where I stay
and never where I live
(“On P and _ Street”)
She’s not above cribbing student lines for her own use, as when in “What a Heart Does Best” she elides her disgust for a teacher who “warns/against lust and gluttony, the only two/deadly sins with any style” by quoting a six-year-old in the class who says “when my heart hurts it feels like someone/punched me in the permanent teeth.”
Browne herself is the child in a few of these poems. “I learned to walk in this town/which means I learned to fall,” she writes in “San Antonio.” Most of the time, though, she’s a woman feeling her way through life all ages at once, as unabashed about celebrating a fast-food restaurant by declaring “Baby, let’s go make us/some kids just/to bring them/here” (“Here”) as she is aware of how others see her: “I’ve been rumored to cut the blue/from bread and stare far/too long.” That last comes from “Recognizable,” a poem with one of the most immediate and pleasantly surly endings in recent years: “Now remind me again how I know you.”
Gripping both leather armrests
the child thinks
she makes the train sway.
(“The Middle of America”)
Holding At Once open, the reader may experience a sensation of power similar to the one Browne attributes to the girl on the train. In these bold poems, leaving magical thinking behind doesn’t mean abandoning magic too. If anybody told Browne people aren’t writing poems this way anymore, she must have taken it as a challenge.