What I like about Jesslyn Delia Smith:
a survey of her poetry & review of “rescue poems” (In/Words, 2011)
Marble is the cross-section of a cloud.
What, then, if the forms we know
are sections of a full body
whose dimensions are timeless
and bodiless, like poems,
whose unseen dimension is the mind?
Louis Dudek, from Poems from Atlantis (Golden Dog Press, 1980)
In his introduction to The Long Poem Anthology (1979), Michael Ondaatje pontificates on a genre coined the “serial poem”—a much-loved form in the 1970s, and most popular among the contributors he anthologized. He addresses some interesting characteristics of his contributors: “In the 70’s some poets talked out loud and some listened. These poets listen to everything” (13). I like the distinction made here because it suggests the work of serial poets is quiet, modest and deeply personal. This is also what I like about the poetry of Jesslyn Delia Smith.
I have no doubt that Jesslyn writes frequently. Her blog (http://jesslyndelia.com/) is updated regularly with new poetry and (more recently) prose. She’s had 4 chapbooks published in the last 2 years, most by In/Words press, one self-published: so it’s the first really warm day (In/Words: 2009), doorhinge (In/Words: 2009), sun, scrambled (self-published: 2010), rescue poems (In/Words: 2011). Their thematic content is constant: love, memory, allegiance. It is the slight shifts in tone between the individual poems that add depth to her body of work and give her poems a remarkable accumulative quality deserving of attention.
Jesslyn’s tiny poems don’t provide for much room to pull out the full wad of rhetorical tricks. Given the shortness of her lines and economy of content, the poems rely on very simple devices: her titles, line breaks and juxtaposition:
behind curtains, some
or silhouette of home
left to dry,
left fumbling for
family in blind trunks
of cars who stutter,
The title of this poem is particularly effective in evoking both frailty and intense cognizance. By itself, this poem resists a literal interpretation—in fact, most of Jesslyn’s poems do. The verb tense suggest the act of recollection (“side swept”, “gather flies, / left fumbling”) but dwells more on the feeling of remembrance instead of a specific or physical historical event. As you read more of her work, each poem’s sentiment accumulates on her compact, almost epigrammatic form and vocabulary, producing an esoteric structure that both evades and confronts her reader. Each little poem interacts with their reader by conveying a feeling of vulnerability that avoids descending into banal, literal detail. It is this dynamic between restraint and disclosure that makes the poems feel both charming and authentic.
Jesslyn’s technique is becoming more sophisticated with every new episode of her writing, increments that are wonderfully documented by her print publications. She has only recently broken into double-stanzas, a welcome step in her writing that hasn’t retracted from her aesthetic. In fact, it has been encouraging to see her form remain disciplined, but the sentiment in her poems become more complex:
empty’s not my gig
today, the hours scuttle
off into the distant past
the future, the violet
october, will be here
Brevity, modesty and coherence are rare and valuable commodities these days. The trouble with most poets using New Media is their proclivity to banal rambling or conceit posing as self-promotion. Even online mags are so damn long (80+ pages) it’s virtually impossible to browse them casually, let alone pour over every contributor’s words. As such, I am always grateful to a poet for editing themselves down into a neat, tangible object. Jesslyn does this quite regularly in tandem with managing a tasteful, accessible blog for netizens to roam through at will. I encourage anybody interested to do so, but warn you—it’s the interception of her books-as-objects and poetic devices that do it for me.
It’s still too early in her career to tell where this voice will take her, but let me take a page out of the accumulative poetics of Louis Dudek and suggest that what’s happening in her poetry (so far) is a charting of the human consciousness. As Ondaatje references in his introduction, Jack Spicer shares what I think is the relevant description of this method:
The trick naturally is what [Robert] Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of any one poem...[a] poem is never by itself alone. 15
The intimate tone of her work, her brevity that avoids vagueness and the regularity of her output into small but cohesive episodes are building a compelling and attractive pattern—one that would strike you as vaguely familiar if you knew the author. But you don’t have to know her to understand why I like Jesslyn Delia Smith. Just read her books and you’ll find out.
Peter Gibbon is a poet / editor / former Ottawa writer. His most recent chapbook was entitled Eating Thistles, published by Ottawa’s Apt. 9 Press. He will be launching a new print small magazine entitled Conduit in the spring of 2011.