Review by Preston M. Browning, Jr.
IN VITRO: NEW SHORT RHYMING POEMS POST-9/11
by Leland Jamieson
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
2009, 146 pp., $13.95
I am a prose man. Although I spent more than thirty-five years teaching in English departments and though my wife, Ann, was a poet and my daughter, Sarah, is a poet as well, poetry was never my real cup of tea. (I probably should confess here that after my first date with the woman who became my wife, I spent the night writing a sonnet for her.) Shakespeare, along with Donne and Milton, had taught me to love the sonnet; Wordsworth’s and Keats’ sonnets also left an indelible memory of greatness. Both in Chicago and in Yugoslavia, where I spent a Fulbright year in the late seventies, I experienced unbounded joy when leading a class through an hour’s discussion of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Teaching Frost, Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, Roethke and Sylvia Plath was an unfailing source of satisfaction as well. I have more recent favorites, among them Ernesto Cardenal, Martin Espada, Sam Hamill, Carolyn Forche, Richard Wilbur, Daniela Geoseffi, Roberto Bolano, and Derek Walcott.
But the life blood of my teaching career lay with the fiction writers—Melville, Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Walker Percy, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich, among many others. And Faulkner. Divine Faulkner! More than a decade since my last class, the high I experienced when observing the excitement of students as we explored together that tortured labyrinth Joe Christmas traverses in Light in August still remains fresh in memory. Great poetry I admired; great fiction I virtually worshipped.
Thus when asked to review Leland Jamieson’s second book of poems, In Vitro: New Short Rhyming Poems Post-9/11, I hesitated. But not for long. For Jamieson is a poet of great talent, who has mastered the practice of writing formal verse, and whose work deserves to be more widely known and read. In this volume one finds at every turn of the page poems exhibiting extraordinary agility in yoking together contraries and sometimes (strange) conjunctions leading to the kind of revelations that truly superior poetry always provides.
Specifically, what the reader finds in this poetry is a world where the personal and the philosophical reside harmoniously—and make music together. Many of the poems are dedicated to friends or family members and a good number are rooted in events or relationships involving the poet or close family. Yet Jamieson’s poetry—much of it, at any rate—is nothing if not intellectual. By this I do not mean that it is freighted with big ideas, though it doesn’t hurt to have read some of the writings of Rupert Sheldrake such as The Sense of Being Stared At: and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind or to be familiar with the legends concerning the Anunnaki astronauts that supposedly visited earth many millennia ago, as recounted “in cuneiform on clay tablets sometime prior to the collapse of Sumer in 2023 B. C.” Jamieson’s major sources for this lore are books by Zecharia Sitchin, Earth Chronicles and The Lost Book of Enki. I shall return to this subject when discussing some of Jamieson’s final selections.
No one contemplating these poems can have any doubt that this writer has spent many years reading philosophy, theology, and recent scientific theories and discoveries; or that the knowledge thus acquired permeates his reflections on life’s disappointments, triumphs, and ironies and the pitfalls that inevitably await those who refuse to learn from the past or whose hubris leads them to assume that their generation or they individually will escape the fate that all humans suffer when they willfully ignore the lessons history or nature might teach them. But these themes are almost always dealt with without the odor of moral superiority—this former preacher seldom preaches.
Another way of coming at this matter is to note that reading In Vitro from beginning to end is like listening as Leland Jamieson recounts memorable events from his life, a sort of poetic memoir—one might even call it an intellectual or spiritual autobiography—highlighting such occasions as the death of his father when the poet was quite young, his mother’s remarriage, going off to an Episcopal boarding school in North Carolina, transferring from Trinity College to UNC at Chapel Hill, getting married to Gretchen, his sweetheart of many years, studying for the ministry, disillusionment with his role as a clergyman, and various efforts—none fully satisfying—to find the right vocation until, that is, he hit upon writing formal verse. Like the accomplished artist he is, this poet brings to bear upon the subject or event an oftentimes surprising discovery of meaning, a kind of “ah ha” moment. Though it’s a minor example in this collection, the following sonnet tells the story.
“I doubt you’ll easily find a line of work
you’ll step irrevocably in, long term,”
a college prof had said. “Your knee may jerk,
but wiggle-worms in you will make you squirm.”
If you’re like some, you’ll think you’ll go beserk
as you try out each job, ‘til one affirms
your joy in it, and lifts your civil smirk
with eyes more lively than a pachyderm’s.”
Turns out my teacher had sure sixth sense.
I first tried out the church, then show biz, life
insurance sales, consulting, thence
recruiting—tiresome, all. Where was that fife
and drum corps I could prance beside for miles … ?
Retired, my ”feet” dance rhymes—my eyes bright smiles.
Here the final two lines do the work of the traditional heroic couplet with revelation laced with irony: Only in retirement did the poet find the vocation that had eluded him in each of the careers he had undertaken. Now it is with dancing “feet” of poetic lines that end with rhymes that a wholly fulfilling vocation has been discovered.
In Vitro contains 88 poems, all of which exhibit Jamieson’s commitment to creating formal verse. Jamieson has stated that “teaching myself to write end-rhyming metrical verse is the single most liberating thing I have ever done in my entire writing life. What it liberates is feeling.” There is nothing very original about this discovery—we might recall Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Shortly, however, we will examine Jamieson’s theories concerning how in formal verse feeling and thought are given equal expression to create a holistic “harmony” in the brain not possible in poetry that eschews regular meter and rhyme.
The sonnet appears to be Jamieson’s favorite form and more often than not the metrical pattern is the traditional iambic pentameter. In this volume, however, we encounter poems of various lengths; one, “No Razzmatazz?” contains nineteen stanzas of seven lines each. Because this poem presents in miniature the poet’s search for and discovery of his true vocation from the time of his arrival, a green, introverted “Florida Cracker,” at Trinity College in Hartford to the moment he knows he’s arrived at his soul’s home, it is worth quoting a few lines from this piece. Here are three stanzas that appear toward the poem’s end.
Such brightness often made him blink,
surprised to stumble on a view,
an overlook that was in sync,
with more than he had known he knew!
Why, he’d not dreamed he had a clue.
Thus deep within each heaving lung
his voice fledged wings for Mother Tongue.
She chants of consciousness man shares
or slowly withers up in drought.
She greens his outlook when she dares
him, “Gaze beyond your known redoubt,
and venture on a walkabout.
Seek vistas new to your eyes’ reach.
I, Mother Tongue, will give you speech.
I am the Future, Presence, Past.
I’m morphic Resonance. I form
chaotic thought and feeling massed
like iron filings quick to swarm
magnetic force fields and transform
themselves with order on a saucer—
looking to force fields for their author.
At this juncture I wish to explore Jamieson’s rather passionate dedication to rhyme, regular meter and all the other features of formal verse. I shall in a moment summarize his own explanation of this commitment, but first it may be helpful to quote a few lines from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. In a chapter entitled “The Domain of the Word,” this scholar writes:
Anthony Hecht is a lyric poet whose verse has been published in numerous collections and in The New Yorker and other leading magazines … Hecht’s poems are crystalline, elegant to the point of refinement, constructed with a rigorous attention to form. A Vivaldi concerto could provide a passable musical analogy to his writing. He often uses the sonnet, or even earlier canzoni of the kind used in the Middle Ages … The rules of these forms are so rigid that even Dante complained that to write according to them was like hanging chains upon himself … Yet, paradoxically, it is by following such demanding discipline that poetry can liberate the writer—and the reader—from the jumbled onslaught of raw experience. 
In a slender volume entitled Making Metaphor Poems by Simile & Rhyme: A Guide for High School Teachers, Jamieson offers his own rationale for writing formal verse. First, he calls attention to recent research about “the effect of line, meter, and rhyme in poetry with regard to its impact on the human brain” and then notes that in numerous languages ranging from English, Spanish, Greek, and Hungarian to the languages of Zambia and New Guinea,, “all utilize in their most well-established poetry lines that are a similar length in elapsed time when spoken.” Jamieson continues:
… the line length in all these languages does not exceed the elapsed time that the conscious mind consumes as it speaks, grasps, and understands the line’s content within what is called ‘the present moment’ of hearing. On the other hand, the line is not so short that it allows other thoughts to intrude into the unconsumed “present moment.” The biological or “neural length” of a present moment of hearing is roughly 3 seconds.
Jamieson notes that iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter are both securely established as favorites of English-speaking poets, with pentameter taking “an average 3.3 seconds to speak, tetrameter 2.4.” Jamieson claims that “these are congruent with lower frequency brain waves associated with the brain’s heightened creativity.”
In reading iambic metrical end-rhymed poetry aloud we are drawn by the underlying auditory rhythm (ta-TUM, ta-TUM, ta-TUM) as well as by the periodic end-rhymes. Scientists say the brain is driven by them. These rhythmic drivers bring about a cooperative feedback loop across the corpus callosum between the (rational) word-strength of the left hemisphere brain and the (feeling) image-strength of the right hemisphere.
The conclusion that this line of reasoning leads to appears to offer definitive support to the theories of Csikszentmhalyi, to wit: “When the right and left hemispheres are united in this feed-back loop, we (whether as poets making a poem, or readers of it, or listeners to it) experience our world more holistically. This is especially true for experience we consider ambiguous.” Left-brain thinking by itself “cannot accomplish this holistic integration for us.”
Does the writing and reading of formal verse really help in making sense of the jumbled, often chaotic matter of everyday experience, allowing our apprehension of and response to a world as “holistic” when it seems almost daily more fragmented and random? Obviously Jamieson believes it does and thus his commitment to creating formal verse has about it a kind of “religious” fervor. Perhaps it is true that, as Auden wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen”—certainly not in the world of politics where “Ignorant armies clash by night,” as Matthew Arnold famously observed. But individually, I think we can affirm with certainty, the creators and readers of poetry are changed by the words, the ideas and the cadences of poetry. If it’s mere fancy word play, why bother? A skillfully wrought parody of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” might then be as valuable as the original.
As suggested earlier, in this body of verse, we find great depth of feeling, always restrained by a slightly mirthful irony; before we read far into the book, we come to expect a witty turn as the poet discovers where his intellectual and emotional peregrinations have led him. One of my favorite poems in this volume is “Persimmons, Pseudopods and Such,” in which Jamieson rallies all his skills as a craftsman while addressing weighty subjects: mind, romantic love, sex, cultural restraints and the collision of the four. This is a poem of six stanzas of varying length. Here are the first two:
Which is more worthy to live by?
Romance (a dreamland in my head)
or groin-gland instincts close to thigh?
Which makes the richer planting bed?
Plus my reptilian brain’s a gland.
So’s limbic. Neocortex too.
(How easily glands get out of hand
deciding what is best to do.)
More, mind’s non-local, linking heads.
Its resident pseudopod projects
and “vibs” with other ‘pods whose spreads
(invisible) each intersects.
So? Head? Groin? Mind? It’s hard to say,
given how glands all interplay.
The classic mind-body split: intellect versus sexual drive; glands interacting to the confusion, even consternation, of the individual. The human condition caught in fourteen lines—a perfect sonnet. A lesser poet might have ended here. But Jamieson sees multiple possibilities yet to be unraveled. In the fourth stanza he reflects on “puppy love(or fear)” and the adolescent’s narcissism driving the novice in such matters to the point at which “we’d play so brazenly we’d drown/ in mirror-pools that serve the throne/ of Estrogen-Testosterone.”
The fifth stanza begins with a question normally not asked, “Now I’m grown up—what is grown up?” and proceeds to reflect on how the commercial world depends on human glands and the fluids they secrete for its successful functioning:
No ad man eats unless adroit
cajoling me with training cup
to juice the glands he would exploit.
Testosterone fuels auto sales.
Estrogen seeks out “buys” for women.
But glands dry up as we furl sails
and munch our rock-hard green persimmon.
As a country boy in Virginia seventy some years ago, I was frequently impatient to savor the succulent flavor of the ripe persimmon, a wild fruit that needed a few frosts to dissipate its bitterness when still green. I can still conjure up the quite disgusting taste that caused my entire mouth to revolt when I bit into a green specimen.
The final stanza again employs the persimmon image and blends it with an image of the pseudopodium (or “pod”) as goad (here sound comes into play, with “pod” being virtually identical to “prod”). This word is used in zoology to describe “A process formed by the temporary extension of the protoplasm of a cell or a unicellular animal, serving for taking food, for locomotion, etc,”
Persimmon-bitter, culture’s pod
projects against both yours and mine
from birth to death. Although a fraud,
it’s common … and thus seems benign.
Its pseudopod can make us ashen—
though it may school us in compassion.
The word “pod,” first used in the second stanza, reappears in the third: “When stared at from behind, I turn/ The starer’s pod directs my eyes./ Our eyes now touch by sight, and yearn/ for more, or none, and mobilize/ according to intent I read/ as he or she acts well, or odd.” This word denoting a mere—but functional—protrusion of a the most basic unit of life is here called into service to describe a fundamental human interaction—a friendly greeting perhaps, though it could be a frightened or embarrassed moment of mistaken identity: “A friend? Or not? My ‘brains’ accede/ as starer calls—or turns, faux pased …”
This image of the pod as a primitive human accessory or faculty gets picked up in the final stanza, now identified with culture, that bundle of do’s and don’ts, of restrictions and injunctions, that weight of shame and guilt from which few individuals are entirely free; from childhood most feel its goad. And though its demands and prohibitions may seem a “fraud” (arbitrary?), they do frequently perform a function essential to civilized life—the teaching of compassion. And compassion, or, more precisely, its oftentimes absence in human affairs, many of Jamieson’s poems wish to proclaim, is the point of it all.
Frequently, and especially in the final selections of this volume, Jamieson makes refers to the theories of Zecharia Sitchin concerning alien creatures who once invaded Earth and, in fact, created the human race. Some readers may be put off by Jamieson’s seeming credulity, ascribing verity to what, at first glance, appear to be at best fascinating myths. And not myths shared by any “primitive” tribe, nor by the bulk of the primitive tribe we call “homo sapiens.” Who were these creatures from the planet Nibiru, these Anunnaki astronauts who supposedly invaded Earth millions of years ago in search of gold and, using in vitro technology, implanted in apes a human mind tainted with an avaricious, violent spirit? (It was these slaves who mined the gold taken back to Nibiru and they and their descendants who have wrecked planet Earth with their greed and lust, raping the Earth and dominating women in the process.)
I suspect many readers of In Vitro may respond like a library clerk at Yale who, when displaying for Jamieson and his wife the cuneiform tablets on which Sitchin has based his theories, replied to a question regarding Sitchin’s books, “We don’t do sci fi at Yale.” Although I have read with delight and taught a couple of books by Ursula LeGuin, I too don’t normally “do sci fi.” While I don’t wish to enter a debate as to whether Sitchin’s ideas can be taken seriously as based in fact, I have found Jamieson’s use of those ideas in his poetry immensely engaging and sufficiently tantalizing to impel me to seek opinions from scholars who can shed light on those ideas’ authenticity. The following comments by one of them, Kenneth Pollinger, inspire me to seek further evidence:
Having read 13 prior books by Zecharia Sitchin I can attest to his superb scholarship. There Were Giants Upon the Earth, his latest, is probably his most important since he states that there are SKELETAL remains in the Natural History Museum in London which could possibly finally end the debate about whether his works are “myth” or historical FACT. His main approach here is built around Pre-Diluvial and post-Diluvial “gods, Demigods and Pharaoh lists” (the Lists of Kings of Manethro; and also those of Borossus), as well as the genealogical line of the Hebrew Bible. He accumulates much information about all these beings thus presented and weaves a fascinating history of their interrelationships and how they are related to: a) the beginning of creation, b) the beginning of evolution, c) the creation of Mankind, d) the Deluge, e) longevity, NOT immortality, f) and finally, how there are skeletal remains of a “Queen Puabi” and a “Prince Meskalaindug”(who are, respectively, a “goddess” and a “demi-god”), which, if their DNA and mtDNA are tested, could provide the MISSING LINK (that small but crucial group of “alien” genes—223 of them?) that genetically upgraded a Homo Erectus or Homo Ergaster to Homo Sapiens, some 300, 000 years ago.
I consider unarguable Prof. Pollinger’s subsequent speculation that if DNA testing should prove that Sitchin’s theories are, in truth, historical fact, a revolution in biblical and religious interpretation would be inevitable . Clearly, Leland Jamieson came to this conclusion some years ago, and his later poems reflect, I think, a rejection of the Judeo-Christian account of how the creation and human species came into existence. Moreover, the later poetry embodies a “system” of ethical and quasi-religious beliefs that comments on the proclivities those slaves of millennia ago passed on to their descendants over the ages and unto our present generation—violence, warfare, oppression of the weak, including women. Let us examine two poems in which these theories of Sitchin’s play a part: “Bagged in Baghdad” and “Woven in Sun.”
Bagged in Baghdad
With thanks to Zecharia.Sitchin
For G. K. J.
Before I lay me down to sleep
I pray—the Lord?—my soul to keep … ?
But Deity’s no astronaut
from Nibiru whose first cheap shot
was pirating away Earth’s gold
deep-mined from every vein and fold.
Nor was the cheapest shot gold ore,
but stealing apes’ genetic core.
Lords hybridized ”Man” with lord code—
designed “smart apes” to bear the load
of muscling gold ore out of mines
while lords lay back on their behinds.
Lords taught us, too, to fight their wars
for land and wealth—slave matadors …
Before I lay me down to sleep
in reeking bloodshed we now reap
For Our lord—wait! Let’s not torment
Astral intelligence’s intent.
Einstein said , Dark is lack of light—
cold, heat—and evil, good. (Despite
man’s intellectual overlays,
it’s plain—it’s no cathedral maze
of stone we grope, our fingers crossed,
bloodied, cobwebbed, and, like us, lost.)
I thank Astral Intelligence
for feeling still intact with sense
which thrives and guides us as evolved—
that’s free of need to be “Absolved.”
It calls us toward a common good
and seeks, for Earth, one neighborhood.
But greed shouts out “Technology!”
as though it were the end-all-be-
all. “Gulp the black gold. Yellow! More!”
Dismissing Light, and Good, we war—
the leitmotif of leitmotifs
of Niburian lords’ beliefs
Jamieson’s poems are instinct with “Astral Intelligence,” that is, the mind’s activity that avoids the pure abstractions of Descartes’ cogito but instead binds together emotion and thought interacting to bring about, as noted earlier, holistic results. In this poem and others Jamieson takes aim at the modern world’s naïve faith in science to always make life on planet Earth “better” and its addiction to technology to achieve that end. Blinded by greed, we moderns continue to pursue our destructive ways, consuming heedlessly resources that are not inexhaustible, always crying for more. And, ignoring the common good, we employ warfare as our chief modus operandi. Reverence for and preservation of the Earth—and the creation of a global community based on principles of justice, peace and sustainability—should claim our unwavering attention.
Now let us return to “No Razzmatazz?” in order to determine what light the final stanza of this somewhat autobiographical poem can shed on the entire intellectual enterprise In Vitro represents: “I do not answer when called ‘Anile’/ My rhyme and meter help you scroll/ the ground-waves of Gaia’s channel./ Now, bear with me and slowly troll/ those force fields we two can cajole—/ no razzmatazz—to break real news/ ’til consciousness is what folks choose.”
If I understand him correctly, Jamieson is here telling his readers—conjuring his readers may be more precise—to read his poetry as a kind of manifesto; to join him in a process of expanding consciousness that will eventually permit our species to escape from the pathologies—blood-drenched strife, ruthless oppression, soul-destroying addiction to accumulation of wealth—that have plagued us throughout all our ages on Earth. Gaia (Earth) should be our teacher, but always Gaia studied by “mindfulness.”
In a sonnet entitled “Woven in Sun (A poem for Valentine’s Day),” Jamieson begins the third quatrain with this line: “Poetry calls on hearts’ and brains’ joint wit.” Now his consummate skill in creating brilliant metaphorical language is manifest as he continues: “aligns and lifts it in a weft that’s one/ felt shuttling mindfulness—so lickety-split/ we glimpse new holograms woven in sun.” As we would expect, the couplet pulls together the threads of this poem but seems, to my mind, to raise a perplexing question: “These guide us, storm-tossed Astral word-winged birds,/ homing by vaster means than wings or words.”
The “holograms woven in sun” would appear to be constituted of Astral Intelligence, a gift from the sky, the sun. But what of Earth’s (Gaia’s) role in teaching humans how to break the grip of the psychological/spiritual pathologies imparted to the species when created? A possible answer may be this: mindfulness, the cure that could save humans from self-destruction—always implied in the species’ lust for more when living on a finite planet—is the fruit of collaboration between sky and Earth, sun and planet, Astral Intelligent and bodily urges, mind and heart, and, finally, male and female.
I have recently watched on PBS, for the second time, Ken Burns’ extraordinary Civil War series and have been reminded of how blood-drenched our US history is. According to a Marine officer training recruits, the nation has been at war every seven or eight years since its founding. And our “American empire” is only the last in a long, sad trajectory of empires—call them “dominator societies,” if you wish—that have defied the efforts of churches, synagogues, mosques, wise men, bishops, priests, gurus, imams, theologians, rabbis, ethicists, popes, brilliant intellectuals, and Jack and Jill to understand those human propensities that lead to robbery, rapine and bloody conflict. And that cause humans largely to shun an all-out effort to create on the Earth a “neighborhood” where all inhabitants might share equally the bounty of the fields, the rivers, the “fruited plain.” The poetry of Leland Jamieson deals, directly at times, but more often indirectly, with these questions. And seems to offer a kind of “cure.” Although he doesn’t state unambiguously that writing and reading formal poetry is a form of therapy, he implies that in the comments regarding the holistic effects of such practice. And perhaps it is.
At the very least, to read the poems of In Vitro is surely a mind-expanding experience. But neither Jamieson nor I should be thought naïve enough to believe that any kind of poetry will save us humans from our “worst angels.” Perhaps we are hard-wired to bring about our own destruction. Jamieson apparently believes we are. For in the book’s final brief poem, “Coda for the 21st Century,” the speaker says as much, noting that humans are “spirits shamed, deep down, to be made fools/ of gold Earth can’t support in this abyss/ of conflict where your lust for power rules …/ Won’t solace cosmic souls awaiting lives/ you aliens tweezed with your in vitro tools …”
So, are we left with only the beauty of Jamieson’s language and thought to carry us through rough times? Maybe. I like to think, though, that there’s more. Dana Gioia has stated that “the writer’s most important spiritual obligation is to be truthful.” Leaving aside the question of the factuality of the stories of aliens who created humans, Jamieson speaks the truth about our spiritual state. And thus helps us as we struggle to achieve the mindfulness that could lead to more sane, more humane, more harmonious lives in what might become a genuine global neighborhood. I now risk the charge of naivete: paradoxically, reading In Vitro causes me to give a very slight edge to the proposition that the human race will endure. And create of our strife-infected communities a neighborhood? I make this very tentative prognosis haunted by Jake Barnes’ final comment in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
- See “Notes,” p. 131.
- Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 249. Emphasis added.
- Making “Metaphor Poems” by Simile and Rhyme: A Guide for High School Teachers (CreateSpace, 2009), 29.
- Ibid., 29-30.
- Ibid., 30.
- Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary (1960).
- Kenneth Pollinger, “Myth or Reality: The Scholarship of Zecharia Sitchin” (Amazon Review, May 24, 2010). It should be noted that a number of scholars posted on Amazon consider Sitchin’s scholarship less than professional and his conclusions unreliable.
- Interview in The Formalist, Vol. 13, 2002.
Preston M. Browning Jr. holds degrees from W&L, UNC at Chapel Hill and the University of Chicago (Ph.D., Religion and Literature). His translations of Central American poems have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine and The Literary Review and his own poems in, among others, Poetry East, Mobius, and The Lyric. He is the author of Flannery O’Connor: The Coincidence of the Holy and the Demonic in O’Connor’s Fiction and Affection and Estrangement: A Southern Family Memoir. He is currently working on a manuscript tentatively entitled Struggling for the Soul of One’s Country and Other Subversive Essays. He lives in Ashfield, Massachusetts, where he manages Wellsping House, a retreat for writers.