"not the cute little ruin"

Congratulations to Jessie Janeshek on the publication of her first book of poems, Invisible Mink. It's just been released in the last few weeks by Iris Press and is available now in stores and through Amazon.com.

I haven't gotten to know Jessie well personally over the years--she's a post-doc at University of Tennessee where she teaches poetry writing, and she was two or three years ahead of me when I entered the English PhD program--but I have had the privilege of reading with her a number of times. When listening to her read, I'm always struck by how quietly aggressive her poems are, and you can certainly find this quality in the book.

The cover image to the book is from a painting by Cynthia Markert, and it demonstrates the "quietly aggressive" perfectly in the muted colors of the figures, how their bodies are turned casually and seductively, their wry expressions, their faces askance or looking near, not at, the viewer. And then there's that one face bathed in light, looking straight at you, as if it knew your darkest secret and was ready to tell.

My experience of reading this book is very much like like my experience with the image on its cover: I could not look away. Its gaze pulls me back again and again. And this is somewhat fitting since the subject matter for a lot of these poems, and the speakers in the poems, too, come from Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, films like A Stolen Life and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and from actresses like Bette Davis.

In a blurb for the book, poet Marilyn Kallet describes Jessie's work and subject matter this way:
"It’s staying light later,” the narrator of the opening poem tells us, “I’m in the mood to meditate Bette Davis….” The poems deliver verses on seductive female stars from the films of the 1930s and beyond. Like the stars they’re watching, the poems become the empowered ones; language is theirs to play with, to betray (“How did the wedding ring slip off Pat’s finger?”)
Each poem is impeccably crafted, syllable by syllable. The line breaks are as crisp as a good Pinot Grigio. No, wait, for the Bette and Lucy poems, pour yourself a martini. The Perpignan poems might like a tumbler of rosé.
One of my problems with a lot of recent books, especially first books, is that the "project book" approach  has a high likelihood of leaving its reader in the lurch if there's not enough context or information for the reader, or if there's not enough other stuff going on in the collection that the reader can track or hold on to. While I've never seen any of the films alluded to in Invisible Mink, and while I know my experience of reading the poems would likely be enhanced by having that background, I found that my entrance into the poems and my enjoyment of them wasn't troubled by my ignorance of film.

The poems in the book are enough to sustain several readings. And these are not just poems about Hollywood starlets. We've also got The Brontes, Villette, Bob Dylan, Villon, and even Brueghel. There's also a playfulness with the subject matter and language in, for example, this poem which gets it's title from a Bob Dylan song:

Restless Palms

Why this slow crawl
through February?
I listen to the flick
of my cat's feather-light ears
can't bear to think

this might be my stride.
Imbalance and balance?
Synonymous. The scale lady's
arm muscles bulge
above one glowing blue eye.

I bought twenty headbands
at the underground Montreal drugstore
never wore one. Three Lucies canoodle
corner booth of my mind.
Histrionically shaky

after to cups of coffee
I live off sweetness and blight
rise every day
to skate on Veronica Lake.
She's frankly lit

by a border of torches
shaped like a small constellation.
Hotdogs roast on her rotating blades
smell astrological.
You get used to her moods.

But to get back to the "quietly aggressive," the poems in this book also have something to say about artistic production beyond film. At their core, these are poems about the act of writing.

One of my favorite poems in the book is "Jezebel Keeps the Appointment." (This morning I found myself muttering the line "You're not the cute little ruin" to myself, and the book is filled with moments like it.) In some ways, the poem reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" in which the speaker articulates the tension between making and losing, and how the two are really one thing: "The art of losing's not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."

Jezebel, who appears as the speaker in ten other poems, expresses a parallel sentiment to Bishop's. Even as we write, even as we destroy the thing we're writing about, we cannot stop, and we cannot stop because there's no guarantee we'll be able to start again. And so we keep on keeping on.

Jessie Janeshek's poems make me want to keep writing, and I encourage you to look for her work.

Jezebel Keeps the Appointment

Write it out hard, you scream.
Watching Midnight Express
let me dream I busted in a kid's skull
left enough blood for an oath.

The rest of the boys do light math
remind me you hav a bad heart
someday you'll slip off, comatose
leave me to calculate grace and want.

Last night, the cat pissed the bed.
I washed so many times
couldn't get clean
dictated a letter to Lady Macbeth.

You're not the weak one
your braids sopapillas.
You're not the cute little ruin.

The train does not stop here.
What's worse? It's packed
with people from high school.

I don't think they know me
hepped up, not desperate.
I won't earnestly pray
or die for just anything.

You want to give, don't know
how to give up. I want to keep writing
There's no guarantee. There's
no guarantee. This comforts me.

Jessie Janeshek
from Invisible Mink

"Jessie Janeshek grew up in West Virginia and earned a B.A. from Bethany College, an M.F.A. from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. Her first book is Outscape: Writings on Fences and Frontiers, a literary anthology she co-edited in 2008. She teaches writing at the University of Tennessee, works as a freelance editor, and promotes her belief in the power of creative writing as community outreach by co-directing a variety of volunteer poetry workshops. She lives in Knoxville with her man and three cats."