In The Waking Green Undergrass

Not Into the Blossoms and Not Into the Air (Parlor Press, 2019) by Elizabeth Jacobson

Winner of the 2017 New Measure Poetry Prize and selected by Marianne Boruch, Elizabeth Jacobson’s second full-length book of poetry, Not Into the Blossoms and Not Into the Air, is a quiet thrill.

“I thought I would make a short list of what is not a feeling,” the speaker opens the first poem, “Birds Eating Cherries from the Very Old Tree.” What follows are stanzas describing the natural world and the speaker’s relationship to that world, and themselves:

Birds are not feelings.
Birds eating cherries from the tree are not feelings.
This is the best entertainment, I say to myself, watching birds eating cherries,
and now I have made a feeling.

The gentle probing of the speaker’s feelings, and of feeling as a form of reasoning, unfolds in the poem. If we think of poems as sites of feeling, generators of emotion, here the speaker performs a self-analysis on how they feel and why. Though the language of the poem engages different sources of emotion, for example, “But when I recognize the robin as male because of the color of his breast / a feeling about maleness swells from my center, and I shiver,” and, “A very old tree is not a feeling, / But when I think of how very old the tree is, a feeling comes,” the poem’s fourth and final stanza returns to the language of making feeling: “The bird is warm in my hand, / And I have made another feeling.” This focus on the speaker’s agency, and through agency a focus on care and caring, runs throughout Jacobson’s poetry. This joining of agency and care ungenders the (often still) masculinized concept of rationality by bringing an ethics of care into shared focus. That is to say, to their introspections, the speaker joins their practice. As Aracelis Girmay, a poet with much in common with Jacobson, writes: “& so to tenderness I add my action.”

Letters, addresses and references to the Japanese Haiku poets Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), Yosa Buson (1716-1784), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) and Sei Shonagon (966-1025), author of The Pillow Book, fill the pages of Not Into the Blossoms and Not Into the Air. The textual presence of these poets and writers suggests a specific poetic lineage for the poet-speaker: one that views their desires with a kind of distance while locating wisdom in nature; one that, like the curator-writer Sei Shonagon, engages intimately with her world through life-writing and journaling. The poem “I Always Know Where to Put My Hands on a Tree,” for example, contains a writer’s-eye view of the physical page, “I am outside at the plastic wicker table, under the coco palm / whose golf ball-sized seeds keep dropping on my paper / leaving wet brown spots from the sooty tropical mist,” but also events outside the physical page of the poem: a car carrying two men and a mattress, a German shepherd running across the road in front of the car, the mattress flying off “like a cannonball / flattening the biker…crossing the road / and texting at the same time.” Jacobson’s poems let the world—its physical, visual, vocal interruptions—filter through, much as the poetry of Alice Notley, Claudia Rankine or Rachel Zucker is continually inflected and affected by their environment. Jacobson’s poems embrace outside influences and events as material, although the speaker keeps returning to her effort of “trying to write a poem with the first line / I always know where to put my hands on a tree.” The poem ends,

I had been thinking of ending my poem by trying to explain
the smell that comes off the sea
as the sun is rising over it first thing in the morning,
how this heats the water which creates
a fragrant salty vapor which mixes with the air,
and that when I open my kitchen window while brewing my coffee,
intoxicates me so,
I get this tantalizing feeling
of being, this moment, in the exact right place.
I always know where to put my hands on myself,
like this, sun rising, salt air warming,
the sea inside me the tragedy of the living.

Having witnessed an accident that could have proved fatal to the cyclist on the street before her, the speaker returns to her line, “I always know where to put my hands on a tree” with the revision, “I always know where to put my hands on myself”—a change that reflects both self-knowledge and self-kindness. “The sea inside me the tragedy of the living” might seem too weighty an end-line had not the speaker included others in her introspection and poetic process. After the near-accident, she exclaims,

Today is everyone’s lucky day! The biker is young and sturdy,
her bike remains undamaged.
The men jump out of the car, yelling at the dog in Italian
calling to the girl, Bella Bella, as she speeds away,
stuffing her phone in her back pocket.
They chase after the dog, and when they catch it,
bring him back to his person
who pretends to smack him on the muzzle with the leash.

The long and variable-lined free verse poems (such as in “I Always Know Where to Put My Hands on a Tree”) throughout Not Into the Blossoms and Not Into the Air, coupled with the speaker’s frank observation and intimate tone, makes the reader a correspondent, as though each poem were a letter. Some of the poems are letters, such as “Dear Basho,” which begins, “Thank you for sending your new poems. / I have a question.” The surprise inherent in the acknowledgement of new poems from Basho serves to underscore how poems are new to each reader and how we experience texts freshly in our own time and context. The seventeenth-century poet John Milton, thirty-six years old when Basho was born, famously wrote the lines (in his tract in defense of publishing books, Areopagitica): “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” Basho’s body appears kinesthetically to the speaker in “Dear Basho,” and she notes,

You have been dead over three hundred years,
         but I feel you, Basho,
the length of your back, its weight across pine when you lie down.
Your knobby right hand, a stylus between your fingers.

Basho experienced as embodied presence in “Dear Basho,” makes a claim for texts as “not absolutely dead things,” for poets as contemporary with each other across time and geography, both cultural and natural. The poem “Mountains Hidden in Mountains” (its title taken from Mountains and Waters Sutra by Eihei Dogen), demonstrates the intention with which the poet situates her poem in the specific company of Asian philosophy and poetry—but also the delight in calling out her textual friends. In “Each Day Travelling,” the poem begins with a literal greeting:

Hello Buson!

I found another dead snake on the road today
and thought of you, the way you said, Use the commonplace

to escape the commonplace. Your square face
framed many canvases—the ashen leave of cold days,

one purple thistle poking through.

In Jacobson’s poems, the outer landscape and environment finds correlation with the speaker’s inner landscape—the natural world and the speaker are in the same world, reflective of each other but also inside each other: “the whole world is in me,” her speaker says. “How closely / you looked at things,” the speaker says to Buson,

Struck by a raindrop, snail closes up.
And then, dear Buson, and then?

You would have kissed me, I think,
on all sides of my face.

For Jacobson’s speaker, books are embodied persons and interlocutors—she holds them in conversation, and from this engagement, her poems flame out. But there is, too, in her poems, the acknowledgment of failure and of an inability for perfect correspondence with the philosophy and traditions the speaker engages. In “Bad, Bad Bodhisattva,” (in Buddhist thought, a Bodhisattva is any person who is on the path towards enlightenment but has not yet attained it) the speaker confesses: “Even though I vowed not to kill / I kill upward of 30 Key lime green caterpillars / that are eating my hibiscus hedge down to sticks.” The tension of the speaker’s engagement with Buddhist thought and her own limits propel the poems forward.

*

Women poets have been writing long poems since the seventeenth century and earlier (Lucy Hutchinson wrote the creation epic “Order from Disorder” in the same century as Milton wrote “Paradise Lost”). With her poem, “Here is a Pilgrim on a Waterless Shore,” Jacobson joins the line of women poets writing long poems, to include the several poets mentioned earlier—Notley, Rankine, Zucker. Neither is Jacobson a newcomer to the long poem, and in an interview with The Chapbook Review discusses writing and publishing long poems as chapbooks. For a poet whose aesthetic suggests correspondence and letter writing, a long poem is the opportunity for a long letter, one that moves through time and subjects as a journal does. “Here is a Pilgrim on a Waterless Shore,” written “for New Mexico,” evokes the attention of Thoreau’s journals and the emotional precision of Dickinson’s letters, opening with a scene of lyrical disembodiment:

                                A month before spring,
the first day of spring arrives.
                She cannot stop breathing in the scent of cold fresh water
                                                   where there isn’t any water,
                   the smell of flowers
that haven’t appeared.

She takes off her arms,
                                            her legs,
unwinds her head,
                 tucks them into the compost with her breath.
Within minutes she sees the star-shaped leaves of the delphinium
                stir under the mulch,
                                  their shoots coiling around her wrists,
                                                             pulling her in.

This dis-assembling figure, who could be the personified “first day of spring,” images the woman a few lines later who is “practicing for death / in the waking green undergrass of her life.” In this poem, Jacobson reaches the long, wandering (and wondering) stride of the long poem, driven forward by its own fascination with itself and the world it sings in: “How long does it take to wreck the good things we are given?” the speaker asks, “Not long, it turns out.” In dialogue with itself and the speaker’s inhabited landscapes, the poem’s long and broken stanzas shift across the whole page, aware of its fullness of form and its own gentle boldness:

There are just twenty elements that make up who we are,
                                             and if I were to list them all,
some of you would stop reading,
                                  while others would go on with great interest.
          Four elements are composed from the air and sixteen from the earth.

I call this boldness gentle not because of a feminized voice or speaker, but because of the poem’s acknowledged awareness of its reader—this is a poem, and a poet, that does not forget their audience is there with them, accompanying them. Accompaniment, company, friends—these are words one very naturally turns to when reading and thinking about Jacobson’s poetry, and it says something about the value of community in the poet’s work—that we are in this world together, and that we must care for each other. Though there are two poems titled “Long Marriage” in Not Into the Blossom and Not into the Air, the longest marriage of all is the body and the earth, and Jacobson’s poems address the mutability, and the gold, of both: “This world,” marvels the speaker, “our shores of gold / our mountains of red dirt— / dust illuminates the light.”

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