A Letter to Jennie: Mike Smith on Jennie Neighbors’ Between the Twilight and the Sky


between the twilight and the sky

Between the Twilight and the Sky, Jennie Neighbors, Parlor Press

(the format of the poems quoted has been altered)

Dear Jennie,

Reading your first book, Between the Twilight and the Sky, often makes me feel as though I’d sniffed the wrong powder or rubbed the wrong lamp the right way and found myself in an unknown but somehow familiar land with only an unreliable imp of a guide. She has named herself Marginalia, but insists I call her Traveler because journey is the name of the game. For it is the moments of movement between destinations, moments that resist the negation of definition, that most interest you, Jennie, the Reader, whose voice I hear and who is, I feel sure, just ahead of me on any of the many routes you’ve laid before me. I most admire books like yours that get me out of my usual rules of engagement. When encountering a new collection of poetry, it is best, usually, to try and discern who is speaking before you move on to what is being said. But what do you do with a poet who so bravely and recklessly incorporates other texts into her work, sublimating her own voice so severely in places that it makes me think she is seeking anonymity; a poet who’s sensibility desires compactness and precision so strongly that the title of the book and the title of the three cantos are pieces of the same puzzling excerpt?

It didn’t take me long to give up my search for a grounding persona in favor of finding what was right in front of me all along—a distinctive and synthesizing voice. By turns somber, funny, dry, strong, quiet, precise, wise, and self-constrained, this voice spirals out of the collection’s epigraph (one answer to one question) through an arrangement of argument and idea to create a world of dialectic, intentionally and necessarily incomplete. And it is the voice that provides the tactility, the force that keeps the many and varied appropriated texts in orbit. The sensation is not the familiar one of overhearing, but mind-reading, for the real achievement of this book is the representation of the formation of a poet’s mind. It is nothing less than the transcription of the ongoing exchanges and debates, comments, disagreements, and expositions of the student mind as it wrestles with the agents of its formation, that ever-expanding list of texts. And just as your lines riff off of these sources, so, too, do these appropriated quotes gloss your lines in a kind of galactic see-saw on the space-time journey of the individual mind coming into its own.

Primarily, there are four ways in which the various excerpts and your own lines interact:
1. The quoted material is given as the given to which your work responds as answer to question: “Yes, but…” or “Yes, but…” or “Yes, and…” or “No, and….” Most of the examples of this interaction occur in the first canto and it is the first method to disappear. Here’s “Song of Secret Hymns”:
“If they are bastards…it is due to a mixing or intermingling of languages, but rather to a subtraction and variation….”

An exchange of questions and answers between the heart and eyes. Leveled thus, this little monad went to market.

Let’s not fool ourselves.

The final moment quiet as all get out. That which seeks to limit only displaces further.

horizon/orison

“knowledge is a treasury and your heart is its strong box (cor tuum archa)”

This technique is one of the most effective of your vehicles, carrying as it does the force and informality of palimpsestic scrawl.

2. In the second mode, the quote functions as marginalia comment to your lines,
often as a check to an unabashed lyric impulse, “Pictures of the Sea”:
watercurl,
lightsplatter

instant (how small
must the moment be

for us to say, here it is

—among momentary days—

“Another touch with the thumb,” said Giacometti,
“and whoops!—no more figure.”

Or there’s this one from much later in the book “A little Endarkment.”

there are only a few places left for the unbeliever

because we appeal to reason as if it were a light; because without darkness

3. Sometimes, the quote is incorporated into your lines as a kind of reciprocal assimilation (to use one of your favorite words), as in “The Bookcase: A Prelude”:
the air folds away
answers to each other
anyone

porous as they are
“crammed with heaven” just as everything is

just as everything is
mostly emptiness

“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it….”

4. Or the entire segment/poem is made up of quotes drawn from one or more sources. In these segments your voice is detectable as sublimate, the art of DJ, as in “As the Present Writing Speaks”:
“letters are shapes indicating voices…
frequently they speak voicelessly the utterances of the ab-
sent”

“The gift of writing is precisely what writing refuses.”

Of course, the arch of the whole book is one of assimilation and in the final canto “In the Lock of Artist Time” the sources have become such a part of your own voice that excerpt and original often are indistinguishable. “Ariadne’s Thread”:
extends along
the horizon: rises and falls and you

rising and falling
are it, half under

what can’t be
assimilated, rises into, as
the instant
From this vantage point, it is clear that the arch is the poetic representation of the formation of the poet, a kind of ars poetica writ large. And like many compelling apologies, it depends upon the voice of the apologist. In this case, Jennie, it is necessary and almost sufficient that the timbre of your voice evokes playfulness as often as it does. It is the ribbon of cloth on the branch, the fresh footprint on the path that keeps me tumbling after:
and this
crazy azalea bursts
into flame:

how the past perishes
how the future becomes

It is the bemused admiration of the choice of “crazy” that sticks with me, set before two lines that evoke one of the many philosophical ideas present and accounted for in the book. This is also an example of the quoted material functioning as marginalia here
to your lines, your depiction. It is commentary, not critique, which is why it succeeds better than the conclusion of the first segment, “Three Towns and an Abstract Universal,” which is all quoted text with the exception of the fulcrum/punch-line of a single line:
“A doctrine of connectedness is wanted.
It is how the past lives in the present.
It is causation. It is memory.
How the past perishes is how the future becomes.”

But then again, too many is’s ruin a good game.
But this kind of false note is very rare in the book and so it is both fortunate and unfortunate that it comes when it does. At least we get it over with as quickly as we do.

There is elegy in any journey. Every new route evokes old roads, old ways that have fallen into disuse. Today’s superhighway was once a single-lane gravel road, which was once just a footpath, which was once an animal trail to water. There is in your book—in addition to the scattered precision of the lines on the page, the indeterminacy, the disembodied voices—an awareness of and lament for older ways of negotiating the journey from text to text to poem. Like any honest elegy, there is judgment too: those old ways overlooked a lot. Books like Between the Twilight and the Sky help us uncover new ways of travel. Books like yours focus our gaze on the new methods of journey.

One response to “A Letter to Jennie: Mike Smith on Jennie Neighbors’ Between the Twilight and the Sky

  1. Wow… all I can say is I’m still barefoot on that little path that leads to water and you and Mike Smith have mastered astro-projection! I’m so impressed!!

    Congratulations!
    Leslie Cadby