Carrie Olivia Adams
Forty-One Jane Doe’s
reviewed by Tony Mancus
Carrie Olivia Adams’s second full-length collection, Forty-One Jane Doe’s (Ahsahta Press, 2013) is titled after a series in the middle of the book which takes its name from a cocktail made at a bar in Chicago.* This in itself is an interesting tidbit encountered in the notes, but it also speaks to the type of circuitousness that exists within this book. When I was reading the book on a bench outside the Flamingo in Las Vegas, the song “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings came on and it struck me that this might grant me some weirdly coincidental entry into the book, as at that moment I’d just entered into the title section.
They call me hell, They call me Stacey They call me her They call me Jane
The act of being called a name that isn’t yours is significantly different than the act of granting yourself a different name — the lack of agency in becoming an unwilling receptor of a different identity, something that you yourself don’t see but are claimed to be by others creates a sort of transposition. An imposed shift in value that becomes bodily inhabited—which ties into mathematical properties and selfhood in a way that I hope will prove to be a somewhat productive angle from which to approach this book. At worst, it’ll be slightly loopy.
Back to the title—we’re given a number and a name. Why Forty-one? I have no real idea, but it’s the thirteenth prime number leading to 100. Unlucky. And it precedes the name granted to the unidentifiable.
Adams begins the book with “A Mystery Story”, a series that presupposes an investigation. Here I’m casting the net of Jane over the whole of the book. The author calls her detective, calls her broken bird, calls her a list of unmade truths. There’s no “me” here yet and the scene is set to create an atmosphere which will support the reading of Jane Doe as not the nameless actor in some form of litigation, but as the generically named victim of some remarkable crime which has stripped her of a “true” identity. Early on we see the detective collecting clues:
She gathers teeth marks. Flesh torn. Hot. Then cold to the touch.
The body that’s hinted at here (her own, the first Jane?) is never fully recovered throughout this section and the entirety of the book. Both the elements of scene that are inhabited within this series and the details of the surroundings are struck through with a sense of absence, but only a sense as clues keep mounting, even when they’re not divulging their secrets.
Adams’s approach foregrounds direct statement and concrete images that glide the reader easily forward through significant chunks of text. It really is a deceptively quick book. The content throughout the collection is contemplative but in this section is particularly airy-boned. It serves as a palatable entryway, effectively establishing the investigative tone that runs throughout the book without relying on too many questions.
It lays bare and fragmented and fails to become whole. The author leaves it to us as an idea in parts.
Returning to the title — the book carries itself forward with such meticulousness — both in terms of its craft and its interior logic, not to mention the sonic landscape that Adams gives us — it comes as a surprise that there would be a misplaced possessive. It’s not “Forty-One Jane Does,” instead it is “Forty-One Jane Doe’s” –featuring the commonly witnessed misplaced-possessive-as-plural. This seems multiply intentional. This means Jane is acting or at least it looks like she is the primary agent, which in many cases she is, but given the nature of that name, it cannot but give the reader pause. Secondly, Jane Doe is not in possession of anything concrete (aside from a punctuation mark if you’re looking at the cover of the book). ”Pandora’s Star Box,” and “Technologies” foreground male “experts” who the speaker entreats and counters with her experience, which traditionally is devalued, given the fact that she is “she” and that she is not dealing with the world in these “expert’s” terms. However, the mathematical and clinical—the things that add up, while being presented as one potential model of beauty—are consistently ingested and then countered by the facts of the speaker’s life:
You’ve sat nightly and watched what I’ve put forth. Astronomer, you tell me, there is geometry in the humming of strings. I’ve said it is all bird calls echoing in a cave. You tell me—Make the blue a little more blue. I’ve touched it, I tell you. It was all there once: Seduced for a moment and it breathed light.
((Pandora’s Star Box 21))
Here we see the “truth” of Pythagoras being undercut by the “truth” of Pandora — and thankfully we don’t have to walk away claiming one over the other. The notion of being “right” here matters less than the impact of what’s placed before us. And in many cases the men are shown to be inept,as is the case of the Scientist who knows not what to do with the speaker’s heart, or incapable. Even her name, Jane, is something that has been placed upon her after the fact of her life. There is a diminishment of voice, and of claim to expertise that is continually being teased out throughout this collection. And it hinges on the notion that as a victim, Jane cannot be in possession of her own life — or the lives of other Janes without forcing upon them what has already been forced upon her– but her life adds up to more than a collection of fact, to more than the fact of an imposed name. This openness and ability to remain receptive and perceptive within the structures of varied relationships acts as a hugely affective and effective critique of patriarchal value system. By focusing on the lost and forgotten and highlighting the violence that is imposed upon women as well as some of the violence women impose upon themselves:
This Jane was old enough to know that she could not reach through the glass, place her hands around the neck of the other Jane and demand answers.
((The Lives of the Forty-One Jane Doe’s 64))
and each other:
One Jane Doe remembers burying Jane Doe in the sand.
(The Lives of the Forty-One Jane Doe’s 66)
This is what they’ve done to each other.
(The Lives of the Forty-One Jane Doe’s 69)
Adams is able to build flesh and voice around a series of lives that have been reduced to namelessness and perpetuated victimhood. And in so doing, by the end of the book, she has worked to recover some shards of these women — in effect, closing the investigation that begins the collection.
The book ends with the speaker asks “you” about the possibility of being cued into what the real “end” is, if he or she has already entered into this knowledge. Given everything that comes before it, this is a surprisingly positive position. Here not-knowing wins out, with the question resonating beyond the end of the book. The fact that the experts and all of our best guesses are still not going to be enough to answer everything, that there is still so much we can’t know is reassuring. It levels the field a little more between the scientific and the poetic, suggesting the quest of both can be fused; that while answers matter, what might matter more is wonder.
*41 Jane Doe's 1 oz Laird's Applejack 1 oz Rothman & Winter Pear Liqueur .75 oz Lemon Juice .75 oz Simple Syrup 1 Egg White Glass: Coupe Garnish: 7 drops Grandma's Tinksure Ice: None Mime shake. Add KD ice. Shake. Strain. Serve up.