January 25, 2013

Review by Alexandra YurkovskyThe Swerve by Julith Jedamus

THE SWERVE
by Julith Jedamus

Carcanet Press
Alliance House
Cross Street
Manchester M2 7AQ
United Kingdom
ISBN-13: 978-1847771346
2012, 67 pp., $19.95

Swerving, in the book of Julith Jedamus, is an act of giddy rigor, born of riddle-me-a-riddle wonder. This wonder permeates her first poetry collection, The Swerve—and not just the title poem, but also the less successful or more somber pieces. Jedamus’s habitual questioning can be rhetorical, but it is as often genuinely—if at times ingenuously—curious. Regarding the Cistercian abbot Aelred, she wonders:  “Who can read your mind, absent friend,/defender of solitary sisters and fraternal love,/ griever for the weak-willed, saver of men/ and brimming rivers?” And: “…did God murder/ us all with too much love?” More pertinently and personally, the title poem’s speaker asks: “If she swerves, pursues the firefly’s path, ignores the moon’s/ rectitudes, who will follow her through doubt and danger?” The answer is evasive and, since the “I” seems to correspond to the actual poet, prematurely regretful: “Not I, who discovered her too late….” For The Swerve proves that it has not been too late for Jedamus to follow a path—observing, reflecting, writing—leading to the creation of poetry that dances with random abandon through doubt and danger, dances among the many sensations the world offers.

What makes The Swerve so arresting, so basically good despite the minor flaws, is the fact that these tics, firstly, occur among so much lovely, discerning imagery. Secondly, they strike me as by-products of an organic search, both personal and artistic. Jedamus takes risks, teasing out the sometimes ungainly ramifications of ideas and emotions and reporting her findings as a conscientious wordsmith. The results of such searches are not always easily transformed to art, but Jedamus remains true to both her craft and her vision. Without being narcissistic, her poems reflect the poet’s sensibility, notably its whimsically free-associational sense of humor and excellent ear for the music of words. The loose ends, gathered in the formal constraints of each poem, better evoke the disheveled quality of human experience than would too neatly pruned and packaged sentiments.

So the book not only swerves but also see-saws. We are asked this rather tepid question in “The Drowning of Drenthe:” “Who can say now what rhymes are told/ In this drowned world?” The same poem, however, presents vivid images: “Bronze dagger, pin and carcanet,/ Twice-strangled girl rescued from peat/ Bright waves obscure.” Similarly, “Circumspect” is a haunting chant, each stanza repeating key words like “ravelling, ravelling” and “hunting, hunting.” But these apt repetitions are jarringly echoed by “testing, testing” in a context where the connotation of microphone-checking is emphatically not wanted. As for the title “E.T. in the Isère,” perhaps it is a free-associational quirk of this critic alone that caused her to assume that it referred to a popular extra-terrestrial instead of the possibly less famous English poet Edward Thomas. Never mind the title, though; I think poetry lovers will agree that Jedamus has chosen wonderful words to appreciate those of Thomas:

                                                            What wide
river of words might have flowed from Arras and your
surviving self to make the resin of this wood
palpable? Feather of cirrus and yarrow, sloe-
stain and nettle-sting, black boars
rooting for walnuts, crows writing slow
circles over corn or carrion: no beauty’s
too slight, no fear too deep to escape your notice.

Jedamus has clearly learned from this beloved poet. Indeed, the last phrase is valid praise for Jedamus herself.

The breadth of her attention is indicated by the temporal and spatial sweep of her subject matter: from the 3000-year-old landscape-carved White Horse of Uffington, in England, to Merce Cunningham’s last rehearsal, in 2008, in a “disused Ford motor assembly plant overlooking San Francisco Bay.” Among her influences are Herbert, Lorca, and Frost, and her palette of forms includes quatrains, sonnets, ghazals and free verse. As she is about her inability to swerve, Jedamus is self-deprecatory, albeit lightheartedly, about her predilection for writing formal verse. The title “Fixed Form” reminded me, along with some of its tense questions, of Plath’s “Words,” with its phrase “fixed stars govern a life.”

What malice cramped my hand?
Who fixed my form?
I wish a lime-scented wind
would make me warm.

Again, her fears are exaggerated, even a tad inaccurate. Jedamus does dismiss them, but with a lame ending. If this poem is unsuccessful, it is despite not because of her practiced use of form (in this poem, rhyming quatrains). The error of “Fixed Forms” is in failing to perceive that all this dabbling in forms is neither mere pastiche nor indicative of being a control freak, but a valid and effective manifestation of Jedamus’s inquisitive, imaginative nature, including her ability to play, painting and making music, with words. Games are fun precisely because of the rules.

The last poem, “Directive,” was inspired by Robert Frost’s poem of the same name. Like Frost, Jedamus is concerned with the ambivalences and ulteriorities (Frost’s  term) inherent in language, which seem to reflect the very mysteriousness of existence and extinction. Her “Directive” is dedicated to photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed by mortar shells in Libya. Like several of the poems, notably those about Whistler and Van Gogh, “Directive” was inspired by a visual artist. Literal and figurative vision is paramount for Jedamus; she repeatedly urges us or others to look and, a step further, to see. The first line directs us: “Come close. Press eye to subject.” Her last directive is: “Prove, from his wounds, the force/of love’s violence, and say, with emphatic/silence: This is Christ. This is not Christ.” At this chasm of opposites, Jedamus is well situated. My directive for her is: bravo for the rhymes and syllabics and sonnets. Keep dancing through the maze of love and death, and especially keep looking at, seeing, and singing to us about the strange bond between murder and love, risk and life.

__________

Alexandra Yurkovsky is a writer and teacher living in Berkeley. Her reviews and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Poetry Flash, Fish Drum, Mudlark, Parabola, The Bark, and the San Francisco Chronicle. A poetry collection, Wanting, was published in 2005 by Beatitude Press.