reviewed by Amish Trivedi
I’m always interested in negatives. In the case of Jane Gregory’s My Enemies, she gives me one repeatedly which I cannot escape when discussing her book: “Book I Will Not Write.” It appears as a title ten times, and the poems anchor the book as a whole, the point on the wheel as it comes back around. “This book is also a test to determine if we can go on communicating.” This is not the book she has written, however: it’s the mirror book living in another world seemingly behind us, but invisible when we turn to look.
We will not go on communicating. Words don’t fit together the same way they do in real life: they are broken, splayed out for us like vivisection meant to show us how language works while still alive. And it is alive: Gregory’s language isn’t lofty or highfalutin in any way, but is still unexpected. By this I mean that words you know are used, but they aren’t used exactly when or where you expect them. Check out the first sentence of “Stupid/Sun”:
At the cross-bow take aim at the fox-glove, how far it isn’t from compel to repulse.
You know all those words, but read it aloud to yourself: it doesn’t fit the way you want it to fit together. The grammar is purposely loose, “at the cross-bow” becoming a location where bad things happen at the start of the poem versus something like being “at the piano.” The whole poem then builds from here in the same stilted tone. “Goodnight the arena of the forum of my mind” begins another sentence but, like the one above, it ends with a compelling thought: “that can’t tell the difference between image and idea, makes one thing of face and shield.” That’s quite the anchor, the inability to separate the activities of the brain and it leads, like so many of the pages of the book, to a feeling of shift. Not quite a shift of paradigms— the world is not a different place— but maybe within the world of the book that’s pretty accurate.
We will not communicate through faith. “Faith” is a word that appears in titles several times throughout the book, but it is lacking. Rather, it’s not that it’s supposed to be there and isn’t: it was never meant to be. Faith is something that happens because what’s lacking is tactility, but in a poem like “Beyond the Studio on the Corner of Faith and East Fourth,” tactility comes into question:
Sometimes you think— listen what happened —you are only your hands and you say warm us. You say fear is fear and I am an animal.
Fear, like faith, is an untouchable emotion but unlike faith, the object of fear can be very real and become tangible very quickly. Also, the two columns play interestingly together. The first two lines on the right side don’t necessarily read together between the two m-dashes. “Is fear,” however, shows us how faith is an emotion of higher beings and the speaker here casts it aside and accepts fear because it is basic.
Gregory plows through forms, almost like Joe Pesci’s Vinnie announcing that he’s done with the next witness. She kills them. She gives us a block of text and beats us with it, giving us no pause or moment to settle into. The breath and body have no space in which to contextualize what she’s saying, only to absorb it and save it for later consideration. There are other times where the text scatters across the page, like buckshot, hitting all edges of the eyes and pulling them around. The benefit of this is the eye never leads us to boredom- the reader is always forced to restart each poem/section with a fresh method of attack. Some poets easily settle into a system but Gregory never does.
One of the finest attributes of this book is, for its density, one never gets bogged down reading. Even if it takes multiple sittings to read, it’s not because it drags but because it creates a challenge for the reader. I like a good challenge. I like to feel like I’ve gone through something and come out slightly different at the end of it but that the world around me is still basically the same.
The trouble of communication is a good one to explore through poetry. Poetry, being that it uses language, allows us the basic structure of communication but, ultimately, is a form that does not need communicating. Poetry can be perfectly at home on the page of the poet with no need to go beyond there. However, using poetry to explore communication and relationships within language is what poetry is about and Gregory is fantastic explorer here in her first book. She uses the breakdowns and arbitrary constructions of language to show us how these definitions are created and contextualized and that, to me at least, is what good codesmithing in poetry is about.