It was standing room only Thursday night for Lisa Jarnot at the U of C's Poem Present series--the biggest crowd I've seen there (okay, I missed Mark Strand, but), at least 80 people, some of whom had to lean against the wall sleepily in the warm room.
I heard Jarnot read with Jennifer Moxley six years ago to a middling crowd at MIT, at a point when I knew nothing about either of them. I found that Moxley--whose work I found arch and full of in-jokes, delivered with a knowing smirk, that I didn't get--couldn't hold a candle to what I remember as a tour-de-force reading by Jarnot. I recall being nearly hypnotized by the circular movements of what must have been pieces from Sea Lyrics; and I must have extrapolated from that, in memory, the idea of a bardic, charismatic presence.
So I was a little surprised when Jarnot stepped up to the podium bundled in a red knit cap and at least two scarves, looking very much like someone fending off a cold, and had--at least in the first few minutes--to lean close in to the mic to be heard at the back of the room. It made me realize that what's compelling in Jarnot's work is not the volume of its ambitions but its distinctive and insistent rhythms; the power of her reading came not from any extra oomph imparted to it in performance but in the way she allowed her syntax to be heard with utter clarity.
Introducing Jarnot, Devin Johnston compared Jarnot's catalogs to Whitman's--a view I probably would have endorsed entirely before the reading, based on Jarnot's earlier work, but which the reading made me wonder about. Anaphora may be Jarnot's trademark, but the principle of relation is less the desire to encompass than the non sequitur; to paraphrase one of Jarnot's lines, if love compels speech, then speech compels...mammals.
The result is a poetry that's increasingly willing to risk the absurd or the just plain silly; Jarnot announced that she was reading one poem, "Dumb Duke Death" (an alliterative ode to Dick Cheney, containing all words that begin with "d" or "c"), because a review in the TLS had declared that it was a "stupid poem." But Jarnot's new collection, Black Dog Songs, is full of poems that court banality, like "Greyhound Ode":
Go to sleep little doggie
while the moon is still foggy
and the wild dogs all bark
by the light of the moon
One might evoke Blake, as Jarnot often does, and call this a "song of innocence" whose naivete is earned and ironized by the dangers that surround it; Jarnot's circular structures, like Gertrude Stein's, make simple lyric repetition seem ominous. It's why Jarnot can get away with calling a poem "Lisa Jarnot," because of this weird doubling of perspective. The poem is addressed to a younger self, and presents the process of maturity in terms that are both childish and allusive ("there will be / more sardines, and all the / grilled cheese sandwiches / on white bread will move / away"), but it's estranging in its ultimate argument for a symmetry between the positions of innocence and experience; after all, "the stars / are all the same," and a person is something neither "light nor dark."
None of this prepared me for the second part of Jarnot's reading, drawn from a forthcoming novel titled Promise X. I sometimes wonder why poets decide to write novels; the result can, at times, be an exposure of the poet's tics, extended over an unsustainable length. But in Jarnot's case it was much more productive. While her poetry usually relies on unstable identifications ("They loved harmony they loved ant hills they loved food and cookies and harpoons"), the novel form allows--forces?--those questions of identification to focus on a single character: a depressed woman (in psychoanalysis, of course) who comes to identify herself as a "terrorist" and to explain "how I fell in love with Osama bin Laden."
Put in this context, Jarnot's circular identifications and goofy games become much more ominous and provocative. Jarnot said that she began the project in the wake of 9/11 with a spirit of "tenderness" and "sympathy"; but the noticeable discomfort that settled over the room made me realize how effectively some persons have, in public discourse, been put outside the limits of identification with a label like "terrorist." (I think in this regard of the fallout when Bill Maher referred to American cruise missile attacks--in contrast with the self-sacrifice of the 9/11 hijackers--as "cowardly," or when U.S. politicians viewing the inhumane conditions for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay remarked that the accommodations were "better than they deserve.")
Part of the unease, though, came from uncertainty about how much we were to step back from Jarnot's narrator. The narrator's identification is not political but psychological or pathological; she takes pleasure in the destruction of the World Trade Center not because she opposes the American government or global capitalism, but because she "likes for things to die." The disturbing identifications with terrorism and bin Laden become part of the narrator's attempt to externalize and map her own consciousness, corollaries of her identification with her therapist ("the person I came to call my dad") and of her illness. For Jarnot, Osama bin Laden becomes not just a creation of the United States, but a spectre from its own unconscious, one of the "dark-eyed revengers from the desert and from New York City too."