This early November I’m currently reading Jillian Weise’s second collection of poems, The Book of Goodbyes. It’s hard to come to a book that was both the 2013 winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and the 2013 James Laughlin Award, given to celebrate an outstanding second poetry collection, without a sense of letdown, given such high expectations. That said, there’s still much to admire in this slim volume.
The book is loosely arranged as a two act play with an intermission and a curtain call. This arrangement invites us to pay heightened attention to the speaker in each poem, something made explicit in the deliciously delightful poem, “Café Loop,” where the writer seems to eavesdrop on two women, fellow poets, having a conversation where they dish on the writer between mundane conversation about what to have for lunch: “My friend said she actually believes/her poems have speakers,” one woman says to the other. And have speakers they do.
There is the speaker, let’s call her the undecided lover, who’s having a relationship of sorts with Big Logos, a man who cheats on and ultimately loses his girlfriend, a woman the speaker knows and pities in “Poem for his Ex,” late in the volume. Next there’s the angry, perhaps self-loathing speaker, a limping amputee who rails at other who notice her condition with morbid curiosity, and who rails at her own deformity even while slyly flaunting it, but who also rails at the historic mistreatment of “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or . . . in any way deformed so as to be unsightly,” in the lengthy poem “The Ugly Law.” And then there are the curious speakers of the intermission, itself rather a play within a play: the writer who sets the scene and provides stage directions, and the principle players, two finches, Bitto, and Marcel who flit between finch-like and human behavior and sentiment.
On first reading, the Intermission, consisting of three long poems in quatrains, put me off. Were the finches birds or stand-ins for the human foibles of possession, jealousy, apathy, and pathos that seemed the center of their lives behind the veil of Iguazú Falls or lost in the Arbolis? It seemed clearly the latter, but then why make them finches at all? On second reading, though, after having read through the arc of the volume, I came to view the intermezzo with finches in a more appreciative light. As symbolic stand-ins, the finches allow Weise to explore the themes of anger, loss, dissatisfaction, self-loathing, and self-esteem that thread through the book, but at a remove from the intense involvement of the human speakers in both the first and second acts. Even so, it’s a device that isn’t quite satisfying. It feels flat and too removed, a deus ex machina where the apparatus distracts from the message.
If the speakers in the first act are harsh on themselves and others, and bitter, in the second act some of the same speakers, for example, the woman whose lover is (or was) Big Logos, begin to show more pity and sometimes even empathy toward others, though not necessarily toward themselves. In the wonderful “For Big Logos, in Hopes He Will Write Poems Again,” empathy even slides into beetled playfulness, and the first poem in the second act, “Why I No Longer Skype” is both humorous and self-deprecating.
When I found that playfulness and some of the overarching and unrelenting bitterness behind many of the speaker’s voices fell away, I found myself craving more of it. It seemed a richer voice, less plain and stark. Because Weise’s poems have speakers the language of the poems tends to the flatness of speech. It’s a common and limiting feature of much contemporary poetry, almost as if poets are afraid that to play with language is to indulge themselves and stray from the truth, whatever that is. But as Weise demonstrates in “For Big Logos., . . .” even with language that still remain simple, imagery wakes us up, keeps us engaged, and gives us insight.