|cover credit: Jacar Press|
Reckoning by Edison Jennings
Jacar Press (2013)
Reviewed by Angele Ellis
Edison Jennings’s chapbook, Reckoning, is a masterful elegy in multiple voices that is also by turns rough and tender, wry and devastating.
As a young aircrewman in the U.S. Navy, Jennings “… from a P-3s vantage point, / watch[ed] Beirut burn.” In “Flight,” he connects this wartime experience with a boyhood memory of shooting at buzzards above an American farm, an activity the thirteen-year-old narrator and his friends find futile and mesmerizing; the predatory birds prove to be impossible targets. In the following passage, the narrator’s frustration and wonder are palpable:
…if we could only hit one,
to blow a hole in any bird that fed on carrion.
Still we wondered
silently, how they rode the breeze forever
as if sanctified.
As the poem progresses, the images of flesh-eating birds become more powerful, mystical, and foreboding—“great-winged vultures” that pharaohs “deified,” “Dante’s circling song to death”—until the now-adult narrator becomes one with them above a flaming foreign city, “…charmed / flying in circles, like an icon.”
A range of responses to tragedy is at the ravaged heart of Reckoning. As Jennings (who now chairs the Division of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Intermont College) reminds the reader by quoting Webster’s dictionary on the book’s dedication page, one of this resonant word’s multiple meanings is being called to account.
Reckoning is dedicated to Jennings’s daughter, Lucy (1989-2010), who passed from cancer. Lucy appears, both directly and indirectly, in many of these poems. In “Reckoning II,” the narrator totals his enormous personal grief as a bookkeeper might. However, minimizing Lucy with this method serves only to magnify her. The loss of even one child tips the balance between life and death, as demonstrated by the emotion that breaks through the dry tone of the following passage:
The law of small numbers
implies her entry will be lost
in the long ledger of the dead…
so small and unaccountable.
In “Litany,” the narrator, elderly and possibly suffering from dementia, kneels in nightly prayer and keeps a more personal list of losses, ranging from “Fred” to “Haitians… nurses… Sudan.” But this aide de memoire is not enough—“twofaced sexanddeath outpaced him.” His “confusion” over the growing list leads to emotional overload, a form of amnesia. To this good-hearted but befuddled man (as to the reader), this seems necessary, a shameful penance:
…one night he even forgot his daughter,
bald and sick from chemo—with so much need
his knees would hurt, with so much yet to plead.
And in “Brown Eyed Girl,” the narrator’s grief stretches to the beginning of human history, linking his Lucy to a “Denisovan fossil” of a hominid girl who lived 2.6 million years ago. Time seems to collapse as the first brown-eyed girl becomes not only an ancestor but also a sister to the one newly dead, bringing the narrator a strange sense of comfort. The twinning of the two girls in the following passage signifies not only kinship, but also completion:
…My short-lived daughter, too,
had brown eyes and hair.
That makes us kin:
she through me and me though you.
Reckoning is not without moments of humor. The spunky old woman who narrates “Durable Goods” disposes of her worldly possessions with devilish glee, spitting in the eye of the death that is about to overtake her. Her “will” is as tart and refreshing as the spirit Jennings captures in these lines:
…“The body’s estate?” she said, “just stuff to stuff,
amen. Burn it and be done…Give Louanne
the four-post bed now that she’s found a lover,
and dare her to wear it out, if she can.”
And in “Rainstorm,” death takes a holiday on a road trip to rural Georgia, reminding the reader that life’s little but satisfying pleasures can be found in a “…Caddy [that] shimmied in the curves / and fish-tailed down the straights” and in “…lunch[ing] on RCs, Scooter Pies, / and watch[ing] the wipers skim / momentary half-moon vistas / lush with peach and pecan groves.”
The reminders of loss, however, lurk in many places in Reckoning: in the corpse of a poisoned mouse in “Nuptials,” whose “…tail ringed my finger, / wedding me to death”; in an old house’s coal furnace in “Feeding the Fire,” as the narrator “wipe[s] the smudge / of pitch-black dust that seams the lifeline of my palm”; in an unhappy woman’s vacuum cleaner—a Hoover Vortex Master—in “The Sympathy of Dust,” which preserves rather than obliterates “…a diary of dross…fragments of a narrative / she tracks from room to room.”
Reckoning circles back to Lucy in the book’s final poem, “Saudade” (in Portuguese, a feeling of intense melancholy or longing, a word with no English equivalent). Despite the narrator’s commitment to “commonsense things” to “keep the cold out” of his “ramshackle house,” saudade “…seeps through the floorboards, / pools in the corners, and laps up the stairs.” His diligent housework becomes irrelevant. Through the narrator, Jennings is drawn to examine—not for the first or the last time—the “vacuum” left by his daughter’s death, the icy center that connects existence and non-existence:
…I retreat to the wreck of your room
and wonder—the closest I come to prayer—
are you warm out there, beyond the world’s rim?