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A Desert Urchin

Andrew C. Gottlieb reviews Urchin to Follow, poems by Dorine Jennette
  

Urchin to Follow, poems by Dorine JennetteGive me poetry with all the answers, and I’ll show you poetry that hasn’t asked the right questions, that hasn’t spent enough time in the hot, lonely oven that is any desert. “Where does the antelope stare / when the hunter brings it down?” asks Dorine Jennette, in her first book, Urchin to Follow. She’s an intricate part of a long collage that includes Heather McHugh, Charles Simic (those of the tricky, often-dark, comic flight of language: winks, puns, nudges,) Walt Whitman, and, on occasion, Wendell Berry—the farmer, the bard of the flat land. A writer of the linguistic joke and the expanse of an ambivalent, often dry land, weaving her life’s philosophy of gratitude and acceptance.

That’s what resonates in this free verse: survival and gratitude to be alive. There is violence, there is sex, there is calm; but amid it all there is humor, a redeeming energy that tells of a determined spirit, a fight to live, a good joke amid suffering. Jennette’s writing made me want to hang out at the bar with her to see how she’d make me laugh. This is a spirited, vivacious author at work, and one who’s had her share of struggles, a hard-knock understanding that makes life so much more valuable: “I’m a half-of-me hanging out / of a flying saucer with a grin kind of woman.”

The book has three sections, each distinct in tone—desert love, violence, redemption—all containing a thoughtful assonance linking the lyrics. An open poetry, a sharing of the developing personal narrative: “Open me up / with the jaws of life,” she tells us, and it’s an invitation for the reader to partner with her and do the same, releasing constraints and opening one’s self to these lines, the extended world, the vital life these pages offer. The first section takes us on a real road trip anchored sometimes in the desert, a world of plants each with their own clever adaptations for survival like the fat, water-filled barrel cactus, the skinny sometimes-leaved ocotillo. There is life in the desert along the way to the inevitable end—“Gravity will have us all eventually,”—and while we ride the rough roads (“Road Trip”) trying to find “an imminent enchilada” there’s a survival mode in action, an acceptance of the love of life that pushes us to desire “to lick the neck of those nearest….”

Some of the poems flow slowly, with long lines carrying a narrative phrasing in an easy walkable pace, as in the aforementioned, “Road Trip.” “Naturally, we won’t get what we want,” is the leisurely first line that lets us step anapests into the rhythm of the desert. Other poems are faster, narrow columns of compacted nouns and verbs that speedily trip us along as they pose their questions: “Is it / the sight—ripe / strawberry—or / biting // that gives / pleasure?” Here we quick-step stresses in a hopscotch pace.

“Anniversary Sale Special,” is an almost-sonnet, given the curt 15th line, the bare suggestion of end rhyme. But let’s not bicker about meter and feet, and instead embrace the flexibility of most forms, especially the sonnet that can include so much room for adjustment, for art, for individual mapping and navigation. For the swallows and doilies, the tatting and flutter, the butterfly and the flock and the swilling: a congress of mellifluous el sounds, the light stops, the interior rhyme, the touchstones of the poem.

There are failures in the desert, too, a search for “what’s left to discuss….” This is the world of uncertainty, of the grit and the landscape of the vast sand spaces, where “certain small / fierce animals / can easily kill a larger.”

Jennette’s “Ode to Doubt” is an introduction to this uncertainty, the pairing of recognition and ambiguity that is, after all, a large part of this human life we live: love and apologies, the success of the storing of water, failure in the dust of the desert’s last gravity. The final sentence consists of three fine images that leave us contemplating uncertainty: “dead horse, middle fork, / gloved hands in hair.” A lonely place, but a human one.

We see this again, the philosophy of acceptance and testing, of treasures and randomness in “Homecoming Weekend.” We take a barefoot walk as the “last wasp / dies on the lawn…” into the world that “dispenses bounty / without regard for brand, deaf to requests.” Here, a vending machine illustrates the way the world offers what we live and use and experience. No mastermind clock winder is Jennette’s God, but a well-stocked, responsive machine dispensing only a guaranteed plethora of randomness. Accept, with gratitude, is her message, even when what comes is difficult to swallow.

Amid all this fluid and song, we find Simic in the opening poem of the second section, “You:”

I could wring
my hands, my snakes.

There it is, damn its stench:
the error house

Abasement is where I keep
my receipts.

We descend to a dark, physical space. Not the gritty, urban bar world of Kim Addonizio’s work, but the spare, enduring farmhouse: a silent, persistent violence. There is retaliation, for sure. Helplessness isn’t part of this universe, a good thing. “You must be faster than his snatching hand.” The spirit of the survivor is a needed entity on any cliff edge. We see the mother, the sisterhood, the screaming woman, the suggestive reds of fire and the aftermath of fights. The reaction to a dominant, silent, abusive, offstage male. We linger amid the pain, recall the line “only trouble is interesting,” a foreshadowing, the indicator of where we’re headed: no light drama, this is the serious, hurting darkness of a woman’s world, a compacted, poignant, elegant, and painful song. “I woke / in the burning / house of him.” Impossible not to recognize the oppression detailed in these lines, and gratitude here derives from the knowing edge each voice contains, the wisdom that suggests a future stability; the pain comes from what we know has occurred on the journey to this place.

“… but I’m a fortunate woman,” she tells us, “who has never lived under the threat of the coat hanger,” in “Interview with the Rescue Crew,” and she means it. I don’t read it with irony. A Mark Doty epigraph points to the hard work for the gratitude of any moment: “What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?”

Jennette is the urchin writing the world, sharing her struggles and humor, the exploration of a single organism inherently attached to the whole, sitting, contemplating, greening, perhaps for both protection and change, for growth, writing these poems of forgiveness, poems of extension, fulfilled poems of an ongoing blossoming.

 
  

Andrew C. Gottlieb currently lives and writes in Irvine, California. His fiction and poetry have appeared in many journals including the American Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, ISLE, Provincetown Arts, Poets & Writers, Portland Review, and Tampa Review. His chapbook of poems, Halflives, was published in 2005 by New Michigan Press.
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Details.
 
 

Urchin to Follow

By Dorine Jennette

   The National Poetry
   Review Press
   2010
   80 pages
   ISBN 978-0982115572

 
     
    
  
 
     
    
  
 
   

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