The Devastation ($9)
by Jill Alexander Essbaum
When the words of Jill Alexander Essbaum are anthologized and collected, her long poem "The Devastation" (2009, Cooper Dillon Books) will serve as the introduction to her work. I should say her early work, as Jillian is in her 30s, but unless there is a radical shift in direction, theme, and style (and there ought not to be; her writing is practically perfect), "The Devastation" (this is a prayer) will remain the place to pry into her poetry.
"The Devastation" is a sometimes-rhyming, sometimes-metrical, form-shifting poem divided into page-stanzas so that each encapsulates a pulse of thought, a technique taken from the patterns of extemporaneous Protestant prayer. Just to whom the prayer is addressed is a debatable and important point, but by the time we reach the second page, we should be familiar with Essbaum's language and play of language--it serves as her linguistic primer:
Years younger; it is a different cross I'm nailed to.
All my charms, all my conniving.
My doings and my dont's.
Impossible paths. Impassable boths.
(I will. I won't. I will. I won't.)
Jill is riding high here on Frost and Eliot and Plath (and a few others I'll let you discover; no sense in revealing all her secrets) though she goes farther than any of them (or any poet I know of save Shakespeare) in word play--her wrenched Plathian rhyme of don't/both is so speedy and arresting that it nearly eclipses the delicious vowel-switching and letter-flipping of "Impossible paths. Impassable boths." Jill is a bit infamous for her puns at the Best American Poetry blog and wisely keeps the spirit of punning alive in her work but spares us the flavor of the howlers.
If we are given a linguistic primer by page two, we only have to wait until page three for the topical primer: "Years ago, I was old in my adulteries," says the supplicant;
I was beaten like a woman.
I was eaten like a woman.
I was smitten with paramours and paracletes.
Ever nearer to thee, but never near enough.
Yes, folks, that's right, Jill Alexander Essbaum is bringing Donne back. While the bluntness of the 21st Century prevents her from the subtleties of "The Flea," Jill's poetry is the made of the rare air of The Song of Solomon, a conflation of sex and divinity; superficially this can be seen as more of the same--we live in a sex-obsessed culture rivaling that of Athens or the court of Elagabalus. In truth, however, Jill's poems turn the sex-obsession onto its head--sublimating the primal desire into the divine.
Unsurprisingly, in "The Devastation" the sublimation doesn't quite work out--the poem's not called "The Creation," after all. Once the speaker tells us that "there's no logic to the Word" we know that something is up. The prayer then ends abruptly leaving us both with a sense of turned tables and the need to re-read. Unlike the inescapably comparative "Prufrock," the end reframes the poem; on the final two stanza-pages, Essbaum demands that we reread the entire prayer--which then becomes less of a prayer than a Jacobian struggle with the speaker's past, her poem, and her paraclete whose divine end, like Dante's, replaces language with the primordial cry.
Once we understand Essbaum's thrust, we can pierce her previous volumes, Necropolis (2008, neoNuma Arts) and Harlot (2007, No Tell Books). These books are best understood as two halves of the same quest: the reconciliation of spirit and flesh. Necropolis is organized around an Easter weekend, half-Dante and half-Christ. Its cover is grey, with a stylized graveyard image. Though dedicated "chiefly to Nick Cave," the acknowledgements point to the importance of the death of Jill's parents and it is through death that Necropolis moves.
On "The First Day," "Terra Infirma" leads us through a dead landscape and, like the end of "The Devastation," informs us that "there is nothing left of Christ." As the day extends to night, we walk through "Cemetary Road" "burned and bitter" in loss and "fearing the darkness of the grave" even though as "Good Christians" we ought not to.
During "The Second Day," we "descend into Hell," following "nothing left" into "maggots." In this fleshy Hell we encounter "Danse Macabre," a poem that is pure Essbaum, from "weep off that white dress" to "I'll pare by halves your berry," a sexy poem that is creepy, crawly, and catabolic but still ends on Christ. Unable to escape the embodied Hell, "The Second Day" shifts with "What (C)remains" into the question of redemption and intention and, while I would prefer a differently punctuated title, the double question of the end
How exactly has your will been done?
And where, precisely, has she gone?
punctuates the central question of this book perfectly: what is the will of God and how am I, the lost, able to fulfill it?
We are given the beginning to this answer in "An Alabaster Jar and Its Oil," the following poem, where "the faint waft of Christ" leads the speaker to "a promise" (of salvation) "[she dares] at once to doubt and to believe," giving her the strength (with drink) to stumble into the third day.
For "The Third Day," the body becomes "A Variety of Hells," where a little death is mixed in with life and sex. To grasp the full force of Jill Alexander Essbaum's ability to mix sex and life and death and faith, "La Petite Mort"--where "sex is the solvent of all isolation"--cannot be missed. As the day, and the book, comes to a close, we are told in "RSVP" that the speaker has had her fill of death; she is "off to elsewhere" and "even Heaven. . .can't have [her] yet."
We can, however, and in Essbaum's Harlot we can have her deeply. If Necropolis is stuck on death and subtle, Harlot is stuffed with sex and subversive--made clear by the cover, a watercolor of naked woman embracing a phallus twice her size. Yet of the three works, Harlot burns the brightest and the most holy; it reads as if John Donne and Sylvia Plath had a child and gave her only the Song of Solomon and the four Gospels to read.
The lips of "Young Magdalene's Prayer" curl around "flimflam fists," "flesh [and] fire," "swelling seas," and "Holy Writ." The young Magdalene "can hardly imagine/what she might do with her fingers" once the "safe-keeped" "box of hers" is finally unleashed. And though the sex of the passage is obvious enough, when one remembers that Mary Magdalene is often conflated with the Mary of the Anointing of Jesus the meaning of a safe-kept box expands. This play of holyness and whoreishness is the point on which Harlot revolves.
"The Clockmaker's Mistress Knows Complications" and "The Villagers Warned Me About You" each take punning and wordplay about as far as they can go in a poem without breaking it. The draw of these poems is their differing approaches. Where "Clockmaker" is remorseful, "Villagers" is playful" but on re-reading it is "Villagers" and not "Clockmaker" that results in despair. "La Linguiste" continues this wordplay with an insistence on the word "whore"--a word as central to the book as "harlot"--a word, the poem argues, central to us because "who're is just a stroke away from "whore." "Stroke," of course, being a double-edged word.
The final third of the book, starting with "Folie a Deux, Menage a Trois" (which has been written about elsewhere), refocuses us back towards the divine. A "Strange Woman" tells us to "use her. She will let you." Though we may be confused by the title the cover of the book we cannot forget the dedication to "Rahab. . .". In the end, the harlot is used by God, not man--and it is to God that she opens fully.
This full opening is made clear in the penultimate poem "Nightboat," a retelling of The Gospel of Mark, 4:35-41, where the both the storm and the body of the speaker are made to behave Christ. As the poem progresses, the waves become bodies of Christ and the speaker and the bodies become waves until in the end, the speaker prays "pilot me" and is rewarded for her faith. She of the poem gets driven gets nailed by Christ and like Christ and, in the body of the poem, is redeemed.
No poet today dares play with such spiritual fire like Jill Alexander Essbaum dares. Her poems skirt the edge of blasphemy and pray for re-readings and a spiritual embrace. Dancing on the edge of her words one finds despair and salvation, often in the same word. She echoes Donne and Plath and riffs on Eliot but has the precise benefit of being alive and full of our time. I can find few poets to recommend so highly. A reader would be hard-pressed to find finer contemporary verse.