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Substance Perfectly Formed: The Poetry of Jessica Fenlon

pull the twist tie out of my larynx
and let the word-slices come out
so I may toast and butter them
sprinkle on some cinnamon
make a poem or two
                               Jessica Fenlon

The poem is from Jessica Fenlon's book, spiritual side effects. Yes, you are seeing correctly. No caps here. In fact, in this 80-page poetry collection, you could probably count the capital letters on two hands. Free verse has suffered greatly at the pens of poets who consider rearranged prose to equal poetry and those who don't grasp the role structural consistency plays in meaning and beauty. Free verse is not free because it is structureless. At its best, it creates its own structure, which is exactly what Fenlon does in her poetry:  with consistency, intuition, and insight.

Observing Fenlon's technical skill with words, lines, spaces and hyphens is like admiring the finger technique of a virtuoso pianist. Such technique makes a big difference in the final product, and working poets can learn a great deal about "how to write great poetry" from reading spiritual side effectsPart of that how-to lesson comes in seeing how technique and structure serve meaning and message in Fenlon's work. In "Quartet," several instances of Fenlon's ability to combine and transform words appear:  

language-mind collapse no tempo
Time's blown

locked in locked up locked in

chickenwire window to parking lot
three days in the belly of
wide-eyed hypodermic nurses run a tight ship
trace silver lines in the wall with fingertips
stare postcard window in the door

stumble into

the land of sense
lightsputter all wrong

but not blown

I've walled up the 
memories of crumbling
word-salad self

life vibrates with an urgency
unmet by circumstance

I wear my asylum, smooth
Curved pill-bottle orange with a

white hat             I know my wild mind
keep off my blood bath salt supply.

Lightsputter, pill-bottle orange, language-mind, word-salad self: these are wonderful examples of the expressive power of nouns in the right mind-hands. I "see" where she is. I "feel" what she feels, and that happens for me with a bare minimum of traditional adjectives.

The poet, though, can turn tables on grammar just as easily by making adjectives spring to life as nouns, as she does in:

the get well poem

if poetry could be good for anything at all
I wish this poem could heal your sick

make you hot chicken soup from scratch
keep your teacup full of ginger

plug in your electric blanket

tap your sinus and drain it
absorb all your aches

keep your nose from chafing red with blown

i'd have to send this poem to you
written on each sheet of a box of kleenex

for it to be any use at all


Why is "heal your sick" so much more satisfying than "heal your illness or sickness" would be? It feels "sicker" than "sickness" and has a sense of something active.  "Sick" sounds even sicker than sickness does, ending on that "ick" sound, and there is a fun, if unintended, play on words. Spoken aloud it sounds like "you're sick," as well as "your sick." In short, I think it works because Fenlon's word choice touches our senses, pricks us with a word used in a new way.  The same process occurs with "blown" in line 8.

Fenlon's use of spacing within lines is masterful. I can't reproduce it faithfully on this blog, but I can tell you that the spacing is consistent, intentional, and physically meaningful. Without it, the poems would lose their architecture, and their almost electric sense of things happening in present tense would be much less perceivable.

Fenlon's poems travel into deep and wild, high and low territories, in addition to that of illness. Torn endings, abusive relationships, and healthy ones, loss, rediscovery, friendship--life untamed, presented in a careful, formal structure that gives the reader not mirrors, but prisms, to look into and explore, trusting light to be part of understanding. Usually, when you say you have read a book in one sitting, cover to cover, you're referring to a novel, but in this case I can say that with reference to Jessica Fenlon's book. Once begun, I could not stop my reading. Her work reminds me of one of André Breton's better-known pronouncements:  "Seeing and hearing are nothing. Recognition is everything." This poetry makes sure that we don't stop at seeing and hearing, but takes us into cognition and recognition with skill and beauty.  I'll end this post with

the trip to hip is victorian

i speak Nothing Nothing fluently
i learned it at cocktail parties growing

up upper middle class                             I know
how to tease the edge of real

in inferential non-conversation
words tiny shrimp to toothpick skewer

never ever let truth split the listener

sip white win or beer                              wear
glam non sense thright-store derring-do

polite diamonds pearls become
eyebrow lip piercings                             tattoos

my happenstance divorce
poverty creativity lands me here

doesn't matter if it's miles davis or motorhead
surface surface does not interest me

Purchase Jessica Fenlon's spiritual side effects here.
For more information on Jessica and her work, visit DrawClose.
All poems cited are copyright, Jessica Fenlon, all rights reserved.


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