The Importance of the Personal: Glenda Burgess on Jane Lazarre’s Some Place Quite Unknown

Some Place Quite Unknown, Jane Lazarre, Hamilton Stone Editions, 2008

Some Place Quite Unknown is the most recent work of fiction by the prolific poet and writer Jane Lazarre, author of Some Kind of Innocence among other works of fiction, and of note in her nonfiction, The Mother Knot, Of Loving Men, and Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons. Her background includes teaching creative writing at Eugene Lang College at the New School, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the Meyers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

Some Place Quite Unknown is a tightly constructed novel that seeks to plumb the depths of personal history, its meanings and dark metaphors. The narrative opens with an omnipresent storyteller observing a woman standing in front of her mirror, aware of new and disturbing disruptions in the thread of her life and her thinking, a seeping sense of displacement somehow tied up with the fate of her mother. The unidentified heroine of Lazarre’s story whispers to a self she can only viscerally anchor to by touching her own face and witnessing the touch in her mirror – “I’m in the middle of nowhere with a huge amount of utter strangers surrounding me going ahead to some place quite unknown…” They are, she tells us, the words of her mother. And now they are her own.

More than a coming of age novel of the middle-aged soul, Lazarre’s latest work of fiction offers the diffused truths of the semi-autobiographical (c.f. author’s notes referring to letters of her mother’s credited to the character of her mother, Violet), and is distinctly flavored and framed by epigrams and quotes of Virginia Woolf’s famed paradoxical fictional heroines Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway) and Mrs. Ramsey (To the Lighthouse), not to mention the sometimes brutally-pained, beautiful poetry of Anne Sexton. Deliberate in its interweaving of narrative, dream, and a questing, questioning first person voice, Lazarre’s latest novel delves into the nature of the mind, adaptive amnesia, the dioramas of therapy, and the importance of personal history:

I am not crying from the real feeling, or weird vertigo of fiction. It is all happening right now, not back then or out there but right here, right now. I have imagined a story in the past more clearly than it happened in real time, and the imagining has led back to the real thing. Perhaps it is meaningless or dangerous to try to comprehend in language where certain stories began… (1. Refraction/ 8.)

The result is a quickly moving story that begins and ends in probing intimations by an unknown observer, but is voiced within the interior chapters in the heroine’s first person voice. This technique allows the reader to balance the storytelling nuances of a possibly unreliable heroine against the omnipresent, almost clinically detached observations that open and close the novel. At the novel’s conclusion, we better understand the journey of both mother and daughter, but questions of veracity are left to the reader’s own judgment, a comment in and of itself on personal narrative.



Glenda Burgess is a winner of The Rupert Hughes Fiction Award, and a short story finalist for the New Century Writer Award. She has published two novels, an academic reference work, and most recently a memoir, The Geography of Love, Broadway Books, August 2008, named a Top Ten Books of 2008 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award.

The Unbearable Weight of the Present: Glenda Burgess on Anna Rabinowitz’s Present Tense

Present Tense, Anna Rabinowitz, Omnidawn

Present Tense by Anna Rabinowitz, award-winning poet and 2001 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, is a book-length poem of daunting vulnerability and angst. Rabinowitz, author of three books of poetry, The Wanton Sublime: A Florilegium of Whethers and Wonders (Tupelo, 2006), Darkling (Tupelo, 2001), and At the Site of Inside Out (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), is a master of the apocalyptic, and Present Tense represents an intense undertaking, as evidenced by the extraordinary intellectual arabesques and imagery of this study of the germination of violence. Brutality, that once seeded cannot be uprooted, and absorbs our greatest ingenuity in the furtherance of its own destructive purposes: “Extrude light from darkness./ When day breaks scoop up shards./ Ask time to make the pieces fit./ Who has more leisure than time?/ Eternity is a very long time, especially/ towards the end./ “ (Primer, 1.)

Rabinowitz bookends her occasionally wry, dark study of the heart of human experience within a structural parenthesis alternating as narrative acts poised within the artifice of history, “A History of Time,” and litanies to the malleable possibility of the very moment we realize a thing and act – the “Present Tense.” An inventive, scholarly grounding weaves a wide range of voices together in references as diverse as Camus, letters between Freud and Einstein, poetic lines of William Blake, and the paintings of Max Ernst. “Present Tense V” and “Act II, The Invention of Violence,” link religious teachings and proverbs extolling the glory of justified violence with the startling clarity and ironic humanity underlying the instructions excerpted from a CIA counter intelligence manual on interrogation. How exquisitely we sense our own vulnerability, Rabinowitz reveals: how brutal our inclination to manipulate and annihilate that very weakness.

The facility with which Rabinowitz interleafs startling images (“ejaculations of flame hosannahed from oil-glutted fields,” “unraveled chevrons of crimson/ darn white snow”) with quotes and passages from widely sourced cultural iconography, strengthens the searing impact of her vision. The latent barbarism and alienation of humanity is exposed beneath the thin veneer of civilization. “Our house burns in the snow/ At the edge of blond light/”

Passages of language spool into the unexpected: an abecedarian – a childhood primer of tongue-delicious words alliterating natural cycles, raw destruction, rebirth, new despair – and a playground ditty between a girl and her soldier boy, an invitation to sexual play ultimately derailed for the call of war. Rabinowitz tenderly exposes our innocent enthusiasm for life – caught in the machine of conflict invented from our fears. Ultimately powerful, washed with poetic language boned by rigorous aesthetic, this grave study of the complicated human helix of violence is anchored in a concluding vision of the re-greening of a ravaged earth. “A skull and shattered ribcage bleach at the edge of the lake/ Detail is reason/ Presence absence/ Life unknowable/” (A History of Time V). A sweep of primitive life asserts itself instinctively. Organic forms more suited to living, Rabinowitz’ concluding words seem to argue, than humanity’s own heart-wrenching self-contamination.

Slip Back Into Living: Glenda Burgess on JW Marshall’s Meaning A Cloud

Meaning a Cloud, J. W. Marshall, Oberlin College Press, 2008

“Seeing form with the whole body and mind, Hearing sound with the whole body and mind, One understands It intimately,” wrote Eihei Dogen, the Thirteenth Century Zen philosopher. J.W. Marshall’s Meaning a Cloud, winner of the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, welds raw experience to essential meaning in an unpretentious and unvarnished book of poems born from his own collision with the violent accidental, it’s aftermath, and the path through love and death he then follows.

The man is as thoughtful and spare as his poetry. I shared a meal with Marshall following the 2008 Get Lit! Literary Festival in Spokane, Washington, and the topics of conversation ranged from the relative obscurity of poetry in the national mind, to the interpretation of a poem by a reader as it differs from the poet’s. Marshall is co-owner of Open Books, a poetry bookstore in Seattle, Washington. It was his firm conviction that a poem, once given, belongs to the reader. Poetry is often a glance sideways into understanding, a glance into a mirror provided by the poet. The open spaces within the poet’s words ferry our minds into linkages that are deeply personal. The poem tosses a pebble in the pond and the ripples carry their own resonance. Marshall’s book, Meaning a Cloud, eviscerates our human need for precision in the obscure, exploring the emotional truth of physical pain, bodily dependency, the comfort of the quotidian and the indelible nature of habit. The love left within death.

In the three sections of Meaning a Cloud, “Blue Mouth,” “Where Else,” and “Taken With,” Marshall walks the trauma of violent injury, of confusion and the unknotting of the disordered mind. The poems are spare, of distinct imagery, simple words pressed into new meaning. In the poem “The Nightshift Nurse Brought Her Shoes to Work in a Paper Bag” Marshall writes, “…And I really did love how her professional shoes ached out loud like seagulls in the hall when she walked and that with the phone chimes sometimes and the elevator bell sometimes and sometimes my voice that needed her more that called nurse out to her but I know really wasn’t calling her but was calling nurse because of how calling nurse felt how righteous and pathetic it felt to call nurse from a dark room into a lit hall. What with all that I loved the sound of her shoes the shoes she put on for work that answered me.”

The poems progress through the regrouping of body and mind and Marshall writes of the new understandings that come with pain and recovery. He writes of the immediate paring down of his life in “Medic One” …“My saviors/ (because air must circulate)/ cut my clothing off—/No attachments.” This stark observation then segues into “Bare Tree at Green Lake,” in which Marshall offers us this, “What they call wood, call branches,/ I call leaves-asleep, call/ requisite thwarts.” Marshall is at his most bittersweet in those poems in which he writes of the slip back into living from which he feels alien and uncertain. “April” is but a three-line poem, a loose Haiku of nuance. The words frame the ache with which he now observes life, “Reading while walking/a fist of cherry blossoms/ punished her.”

In the last section of the book, Marshall moves more freely within his words, threading a strong and vivid connection between living and dying and love. His mother’s death anchors the center of the long poem that comprises “Taken With.” Marshall writes of his mother’s last breath, “Imagine how a rock becomes complete.” Never sentimental, never pitying, the language of J. W. Marshall’s book of poems is a plainspoken exploration of the fragility of existence itself, and in its fierce allegiance to the present, a song to the moment.

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