Riches for One • Poverty for Two

That’s the title of a new collection of poetry by Jenny Rossi. She wrote me, maybe three weeks ago, asking if I’d review her poetry. I tried to persuade her that I’m a nobody, that I don’t review free verse, but she played the Vermont card (and I’m a sucker for Vermont poets) and she promised to write a poem for the blog that wasn’t free verse. We all have our price. I feel conflicted about reprinting entire poems, but with poems so short it feels silly to extract two or three sentences (half the poem).

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If the poet is writing traditional poetry, then I enjoy gauging how well he or she has used rhyme, end-stopping, enjambment, meter and the overall form. These are hard to pull off while still writing a poem that feels natural and inevitable. The free verse poet, on the other hand, only has to consider content. The words and lines can fall wherever she wants them to. Free verse is free.
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But the better free verse poets distinguish their poetry through imagery, metaphor, figurative language, clarity and originality of thought, internal rhyme and even flirtation with meter. So it’s on that basis that I read Rossi’s poems. Here’s the first poem in her book:

The first thing that strikes me is that we have a poet with a unique way of looking at the world, she has a light touch, is deft and has a sense of humor. I already like her. I always know I’m in trouble if the first poem in a book starts with a “deep thoughts” quote from another poet, writer or philosopher, launches into a poem as weighted with meaningfulness as a five gallon pale of joint compound, and ends with a self-important footnote. We have, thankfully, none of that here. The poem is even shaped like a set of stairs.

I like how Rossi describes “your steps”. They’re the sound of someone wading through a sea of socks. That kind of simile shows a gifted poet at work. It’s original and humorous. The other thing I like is that she’s the first poet I’ve reviewed who plays on our sense of sound. The imagery of every other poet I’ve reviewed is nearly exclusively visual. She dives into another aural image when she compares the “soft thuds” to “shaking hands with the wall very gently”. This is fun stuff and the similes are original. The poem ends with a dash of wry humor and that sets the tone for the rest of the book.

There used to be a poet I had a huge crush on when I was a teenager. As with all my very best crushes, she was unobtainable. Her name was Nika Turbina. She was a Russian poet (of the Soviet Union) and was a child prodigy. I still have clippings from newspaper articles about her in my old poetry sketchbooks. Yes, this was a serious crush. I wish I could have met her. She died in 2002, just 28 years old. Here’s a poem she wrote when she was 8 years old (I copied it into my sketchbook all those years ago) and, in fact, I still have her first book:

Heavy are my verses—
Stones uphill.
I will carry them up to the crag,
The resting place.
I will fall face down in the weeds,
Tears will not do.
I will rend my strophe—
The verse will burst out crying.
Pain cuts into my palm—
Nettles!
The day’s bitter taste turns
All to words.

That’s hard, that’s rough and that’s Russian, even from an eight year old girl. But there was something about Rossi’s poem, College debt that reminded me of it.

It was like reading Nika Turbina with a sense of humor. Rossi displays that same gift for conceit (poetic definition) that Turbina had. The poetic conceit is defined as “an elaborate poetic image or a far-fetched comparison of very dissimilar things“. This, in fact, is a very old and traditional technique that was very common among Elizabethan poets, especially Donne, Herbert and Herrick and it’s a technique and talent that makes poetry really fun to read and distinguishes it, in many ways, from prose. John Donne’s poem, The Flea, is probably the most famous poetic conceit in all of English poetry. And it’s this talent for the poetic conceit that separates Rossi from the usual run-of-the-mill poets publishing in the dreary thousands. How she transforms the eating of paper off the floor into a metaphor for naïve poetic ambitions is a pleasure to behold. She sustains the metaphor from beginning to end and that too takes some genuine talent and poetic imagination. What’s not to love as her conceit careens through false pregnancy and her giving birth to bright, appreciative faces?

There are so many poems, little gems, I want to quote and show off. This is the way you do this, and this the way to do that. Sometimes Rossi writes a poem for no other reason than to revel in her gift for metaphor and conceit:

Who hasn’t tasted the same butter in the girlfriend or boyfriend we can’t live without but are better off forgetting. The taste! But as in so many of Rossi’s poem, it’s the light and deft touch, humorous and wry, that gives the poems personality and memorability. She’s not the kind of poet who speaks from the lectern, her poems a panorama of wide screen ego. She’s not one fainting wrist away from the psychiatrist’s couch. Reading many of her poems is like visiting with a charming narcissist over a latté in a Vermont café.

But, to be fair, all is not lightness and humor. When Rossi writes to cut, her poems change.

I sympathize with this poem. When I read it I say to myself, hell yes! However, and though the plain-spoken poem contrasts well with the others, it would be forgettable if not for the final lines. The image of the “quiet child/with loud bruises cracking/underneath the pain of thin cotton” is masterful. The synesthesia of cracking bruises and “the pain of thin cotton” communicates the child’s suffering with a compression that marks the poet apart from mere writers. I can’t tell you how many “award winning” poets I’ve read, including Pulitzer Prize winning poets, who should consider retiring in triumph the day they ever write lines like these. One also senses that Rossi is a fan of Dickinson. There’s more than a whiff of the older poet in Rossi’s.

The dark side to Rossi’s humor makes itself felt in a prose poem like Lessons from the Middle Class:

To me, the poem falls flat. There’s nothing in a poetic sense that recommends it (to me), and the humor, such as it is, feels snide and sarcastic. One wonders what feelings compelled her to write the poem and then what pleased her so much that she decided to include it. In the better poems, one can guess such things, but in this poem/paragraph I’m left scratching my head. This isn’t the only prose poem in the collection. Another called Just don’t tell your mother you’re in love, ends with the memorable lines “your mother will shake my hand…when you come to my place, heavy scent of pine and linen burring to your sweaters, her words like safety pins clinging tight, very nice but a bit strange” — memorable because of the imaginative simile her words like safety pins. However, reading her prose poems reminds me that, in truth, every one of her poems could be a prose poem. There is nothing in the way of internal rhyme or rhythm that distinguishes her lineated poems from her prose poems. And if I were to fault her for something she doesn’t attempt (which isn’t exactly fair) it’s that there is really no music in her lines.

She doesn’t use language to elevate the poem. I never get that transcendent feeling when reading a modern poet like Furlinghetti or a poet like Dickinson, when the sum of their poems exceed their parts: their imagery, language and structure. The sum of Rossi’s poems never seem to exceed their parts. They sometimes feel more like displays of cleverness without emotional content. They lack gravitas; and I hate myself for writing that, but they do. Her poems, as I wrote from the beginning, are refreshing because they don’t posture as testaments to heartbreaking genius. On the other hand, one wonders if there’s anything that would cause her to sit with a poem for more than a few sentences and to shape her words into something more than prose — some grief, joy or moment of awe that might break through her insouciant humor and cleverness — traits that seem to defend and protect a deeper vulnerability – perhaps a poet like the eight year old Nika Turbina who, in one poem, expressed a more vulnerable self than in the entirety of Rossi’s poems.

But this is no way to end a review.

This is a first book of poetry by a new poet and no poet should be judged by her first effort. If this were her last book, then what it lacks would exceed its successes. As a first book, her successes outweigh the limitations. Read her for her sense of humor. Read her to be captivated by lines where imagery and figurative language promise real talent and poetry. Read her over a latté and you might feel like you’re engaging in a lunch-break tête-à-tête with an engaging friend.

Jenny Rossi is a poet living in Burlington, Vermont and her new book can be read at Deadly Chaps.

6 responses

  1. I am not enthralled by any of the material cited but I admire this young lady’s willingness to put it out there. Besides image, lyric and symbol, there is effort. And there are thousands of poets living in these sad times who are willing to at least try. Let’s hope her efforts do not go unappreciated. I wish her much success.

    • That’s a fair-minded comment. If she gets the right breaks I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes somewhere. Her self-deprecating sense of humor reminds me of Billy Collins, though not her poetry.

  2. Pingback: Bartered Poetry « PoemShape

  3. “displays of cleverness…defend and protect a deeper vulnerability”–I am tempted by this most every time I write. I think many are. If your advice on this account meets with Rossi’s experience, it may be one of the most helpful critiques she ever receives.

  4. Thank you for the balanced review. I would also like to mention/explain to readers – my editor required 140 characters for poetry, 420 for prose. Spaces included.
    (For anyone wondering at the brevity of such a venture.)

    Again, thank you for the review – exquisitely balanced, and leaves me looking at my work with an entirely different eye. Hat’s off to you.

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