Taut: Gwyn McVay on Lisa Jarnot’s Night Scenes

night scenes

Lisa Jarnot, Night Scenes, Flood Editions

If one word can sum up the poems in Lisa Jarnot’s second collection, Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001), it is “taut.” In two, it would be “tightly wound,” from the terse prose poems in the “Sea Lyrics” section that meditate on dislocation and violence, to the terrifying “The Age of the Velocipede,” an uninterrupted three-page apostrophe telling a “wounded animal” what it is not. So upon opening Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008), and discovering in its night sky (the endpapers beautifully continue the cover’s starry-sky motif) what Hank Lazer, in his review for Ekleksographia, correctly called “an odd iambic joy,” one might well blink and wonder whether this is a completely different Lisa Jarnot. The first poem, “Sinning Skel Misclape,” reads like Susan Howe and Allen Ginsberg dancing together on nitrous oxide:

O sinning skel misclape thy lock
from frenzied felbred feefs
and longitudes of long tongued fuels
unpebble-dashed deceased.

Yet “deceased” escapes its denotative meaning to a great extent, because the other nouns in the stanza are either coinages, or the objects of coined verbs. How does one “misclape” a lock? Is this a mechanical act of burglary, or an Alexander Pope act of hair theft? It’s not a question the reader is encouraged to ponder, because the ballad meter dances us around in a “tradition for the form of those / belingered, cheerful, nigh.” And as cheerfully as the late Ginsberg, the first section of the book takes up rhyme, meter, and image, and breaks them down to a purity of play with phoneme and morpheme that is altogether—what’s the big theoretical word for this?—fun.

In the second section, the speaker of “What I Want to Do” claims her desire is to commit “Normal shit / like a normal person,” but luckily for the reader, any normal shit happening here is not done in a normal manner at all; it is done like Lisa Jarnot playing. Thus, we get “Whole Hog,” a set of 50 numbered couplets combining observation of the phenomena of farming with curious aphorisms, indeed koans, like “A true relation marries its dead” or “One heifer ceases to vanish.” Part three returns to the vocative mode and the curious love poems of the first section, adding a shorter-lined, Creeley-esque voice, as in “Bee Ode” (“Be free, or / something like that”), and the anagram play of “Temerity Lady.”

So in searching for a single word to describe Night Scenes, I happily concur with Lazer and choose “joy”—even visible in the elegy that closes the book. Many of the poems are dedicated to friends, possibly even inspired by party-game writing prompts: who knows? The attention to the texture, what the food industry calls the “mouth-feel,” of the language, succeeds in the poet’s movement toward play and joy; one of the book’s dedicatees is Lee Ann Brown, whom Jarnot credits in an afterword with “releasing me back into the spontaneity and joy that had been so much at the root of my love for Allen Ginsberg’s work.”

Whatever Brown and the other peers and friends mentioned in Night Scenes did for Jarnot, it worked. This is a book about a lot of normal shit, but painted in a lovely, decidedly abnormal, work of careful craft that will keep me reaching for Night Scenes (not to the exclusion of Jarnot’s other books, but because it’s just that cool) over and over.


Gwyn McVay is the author of Ordinary Beans (Pecan Grove Press, 2007). Her work appears most recently in Ripple Journal, Salt River Review, and Letters to the World: Poems from the WOM-PO Listserv (Red Hen Press, 2008).