My first painting will be “The Accuser”
If there’s one thing you, me, and Laura Bush can agree on, it’s our love of Emily Dickinson. The same readers and critics who decry willful obscurity, idiosyncratic syntax, and private language in contemporary poetry will rightfully marvel over these same qualities in Dickinson as facets of the gem, responsible for its remarkable light. If only similar numbers were willing to bring such generous perceptive- and receptive-ness to contemporary writing, we could quit sounding the campy death knell of American poetry once and for all.
To Mrs. Bush and this freshly revived audience for American poetry, I am pleased to introduce Philip Jenks. "My first painting will be ‘The Accuser’" is Jenks’s second volume of poetry; in his first, "On the Cave You Live In" (Flood Editions), slim, dendritic lyrics advance from phrase to phrase as if by synaptic leap. This new volume is less attenuated, and more concerned with matters of the flesh—that is, with the body as mysterious matter that touches both interior and exterior worlds, as murky region where self shades into other and multiple time frames are interchangeable and blurred.
"[L]igature and commence" the volume opens, with that "ligature" suggesting a link to a previous or adjacent reality existing regardless of where the poet chooses to begin. As if to emphasize this point, most of the poems in the volume begin with three black stars, a non-verbal iconography which flashes its message directly to the brain without needing to be ‘read’. Such immanence results in a dense, saturated lyric:
who would sign from the ribs
of a carrier pigeon? i wanted to
see you from and also prior to
what is departed. cleft of overpass
or sick to the sideways animal
kingdom. over a sprawl of coffee
table and carpet crumb bombing
This passage is exceptionally interesting for its glut of possible readings. The "carrier pigeon" may be a god or God’s courier into the mundane world, or may carry human communication, or may even be a purely biological agent, carrying disease, which again may or may not be seen as hand of a God or gods. The ‘i’ wants a bird’s-eye view, not in terms of literal height, but in terms of this messenger bird’s supramortal viewpoint of what is past, and passing, and to come. After this heavy setup, the ultramundane landscape of highway, overpass, roadkill, coffee table seems stressed and “cleft” with immanence; do "histories" spill from the table, or just a coffee-table book about military history? Do crumbs sprawl in the carpet or does the view of a trashed room recall a carpet-bombed vista from above? One senses that all of these realities have priority and presence, that the lines are as supercharged and overloaded as the ribs of the bird.
This Hopkins-like sense of a universe stressed with immanence is apparent throughout the book. Sometimes, as in the above quoted passage, a steady, enjambed clausal flow keeps the poem stable under the pressure of its contents. Elsewhere, syntax thins out to a wiry, slangy thread:
maybe in a little bit.
a box for the future
hung after what will be.
Th here street will be was
stopped or checkt clikt
hung spiders from sprung
Hopkins flashes from this naturalism, and from the flagwords "hung" and "sprung"; like Hopkins, Jenks drives even the letters of words together to conjure an aural ecstasy, though he takes this a degree beyond nonce formations. These crushed words ("Th here street", "checkt clikt") recall the black stars that begin each poem; they seem to drive language past conscious analysis and directly into experience.
Jenks’s extended sequence of visionary lyrics splits open into a difficult-to-classify series of poems called "Hydra". Here Jenks translates the epistemological question of interior/exterior reality to a teeming, oceanic collage that seems set in the sea of history as well as a literal body of water. The hydra appears like a fist of language
stippled w/the phenomenal no matter
but its own flux
this tweeter is a jewel box of turmeric
jeweled in turmeric ruddy flung fiasco
and seems to stand in for the speaker, who studies himself as a benthic organism, exisiting within the sea-like bodies of history, ecology, and time: "I’m/ Lying sideways looking in tentacles/Or rapping unmounted in airwaves/ It’s illustrious to shackle w/mandible." Despite the collaged format, the vocalized, driving energy of these poems is pronounced and infects the volume thereafter, as does the underwater imagery. When the brief starred poems return to the volume, they are colored by this ‘hydra’ knowledge, and benthos becomes a model for art and for community, for existence as a kind of communal self submerged in the sea of experience: "Epipelagic movement enfolds/ one thousand giant clams/ thriving on the ocean floor./ "the field." its reciprocity." This model of self as a multiplicity and an embeddedness is prefigured in an earlier poem’s womb imagery: "i lived inside of you/ and there was more/a nodding parallel/sifted splitting[… .]"
The last poems in the book apply the methods of the earlier starred poem with a greater range of effects, as if trying to think out the various implications of the benthic, communal model of self. The poem "Hydra fucks" proposes a finally ecstatic diagram of concentric realities:
Born under porch corners
Is also breathing
Me and possum were there to take each
Others’ air. Microscopic beads
An Hydra is the corner
And the light that makes it
Breathes itself into aether eternal
Tether and antler more a matter
Here, the insertion of "An Hydra" signals that the homely vision of empathy between “Me” and “possum” will now be expanded to a vision of matter bathed in the breath of life, and this in turn triggers the primal energy of the language: "aether eternal/Tether and antler more a matter." The energy of this vision is elsewhere directed into queer hymns and anthems. At other times, it is rendered as an almost sub-lexical crooning which seems both the innermost and outermost rung of self:
infold porf the dream
over here, thusly and creant.
done so poorly with no tune
for the planets found wearing
cheikin beak this dream I spoke
w/chiekin beaks […]
This broken music seems to represent both the speaker’s utterance barely pushing through into language and the playful recombinant energy of Existence itself. Far from being issued from the mountaintop, this poem emerges from within the cartilage of the chicken’s beak, and later through a collection of other animal tissues: "you natal speech/wetgrass frog & slug/’furs and revolvers’". In the book’s final phrases, it is a "king ant" that provides us with the surprisingly circular way out: "king ant mimes/your preface or enlarge." It is as if we can surf the excessive surge given out by that "enlarge" back to the beginning of the book.
This book’s identification with lowly animals, benthic lifeforms, even cells and tissues distinguishes its vaticism from most other poetic works sharing the vatic genre. Jenks resists the dramatized, exteriorized diction of pronouncement, and thus avoids the egocentrism which generally typifies visions-in-verse. "My first painting will be ‘The Accuser’" renders a hearing rather than a vision—a seadeep, ecological, complexly embodied hearing of multiplicity as self.