Part Darwin, part Zen, all the poems in the collection are indicative of a mind refusing to turn away from daily encounters the poet has with the small deaths of snakes, insects, and birds, along with the aging of the poet’s corporeal body. With the curiosity and focus of a scientist, Jacobson digs deep “to break the identity with the body / with the mind,” seeing universality in a common temporality.
The poems are primarily narrative, the speaker beginning with a story or making a list of facts. From these narratives, she spins the poems into other stories, or into her own stories. In the opening line “Common Octopus,” for example, Jacobson writes:
I heard a scientist speak about new discoveries on multitasking.
This first stanza delivers information, the factual accounting of the scientist’s views on the subject. But the second stanza launches us into a story about the speaker’s encounter with a parked school bus and the curiosity that compels her to enter it. The stanza ends:
but tomorrow I will go back to check again, try to wrestle the doors shut.
And so the poem progresses: back to the subject of the scientist’s talk, then spinning away to take up the subject, in the final stanza, of the speaker’s relationship to poetry.
This is a hallmark of Jacobson’s style: weaving narratives into other narratives, as if she is always in the process of gathering and grouping experience and information, then integrating it all with her imaginative discoveries. Her poems remind me of the painstaking care with which birds build a nest from fragile twigs, flying out then back again and working each single twig into a complicated and beautiful piece of art.
With her long lines and sentences that can run half a page, the poems turn and swerve, return and depart without losing us.
The poems in this book are, at their core, sensual: “I couldn’t help but touch the two mating earthworms / as thick as my thumb,” she writes in “Here is a Pilgrim on a Waterless Shore,” an eight-part poem that comprises the book’s final section. Again, Jacobson’s eagles, hummingbirds, dogs, bees, and rabbits populate the poem:
There are just twenty elements that make up who we are, and if I were to list them all some of you would stop reading while others would go on with great interest.
Though that is true, Jacobson does go on, cataloging, much as Whitman did, the splendorous details of the world. And for those readers who do go on, the reward is an expansion of their own sense of amazement in even the smallest things.
In her poem “Which Yellow Bird,” she writes, “Just to the right of the lifeguard shack / a couple was fucking on a chaise lounge,” a scene on the beach where children are playing in the sand and cocktail servers are bustling amid pink rubber beachballs. And then: “I didn’t have the nerve to turn away.”
And it’s precisely the fact that she can’t turn away that gives these poems their nerve.
He shot a large buck, and when he was beginning to dress it,
Just as he made the first cut with his blade through the buck’s neck, This man opened his mouth to yawn.
The neck of the elk exploded, and the cervical fluid Burst from its spine
Infecting the man With a parasite that nearly killed him.
In poem after poem, Jacobson contemplates living in this world where death becomes the subject for the living. What impresses me is how the poet is not repelled by death but approaches it with a level acceptance of the cycles of birth and death. Nor does she judge the instinctual life given to us as human beings. Her own sensuality and sexuality is at the center of these poems: what she can taste, feel, and see—plus her own body’s reaction to the world in which she lives.
Returning to Jacobson’s “Birds Eating Cherries from a Very Old Tree,” she writes, “But when I recognize the robin as male because of the color of his breast / A feeling about maleness swells from my center, and I shiver.” Observant as she is of the natural world, Jacobson is also a great observer of the self. In “The Art of Instinct,” for instance:
Here I am the brightest one Against the white sheets Back arching, A rising whale throwing its form from the sea Turning rose, then scarlet, then peony—light spreading across our flesh And the marvelous ability to be held by instinct.
Jacobson is an astute observer, a recorder of details that take us acutely into the scene she is observing. She is a sensualist who knows her sexuality is just another part of the larger natural world, her body another part of the instinctual cycle in which we humans must live. I know of no other poet who has so well integrated empathy with an objective curiosity about the world in which we live.
Karen Whalley is a poet living in Port Angeles, Washington. She is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA program for writers and a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Award for Poets. Her first book, The Rented Violin, was published by Ausable Press; her latest book, My Own Name Seems Strange to Me, was winner of the Off-the-Grid Poetry Prize and was released in January 2019.
Header photo by IvaFoto, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Karen Whalley by Ernst Ulrich Schafer.