Jenna Butler’s beautifully difficult remembering

Jenna Butler. Wells (University of Alberta Press 2012).
Jenna Butler. Spindle (Snowapple Press 2012).

Wells, Jenna Butler’s second full length book, takes on a difficult & grand subject, that of memory, slowly disappearing & then fully lost in a loved relative (in this case her grandmother). Butler has a sharp eye & a sensitive ear, which she here puts to work in a series of prose poems that find their way back into a past she knew only through the memories of another person: her grandmother remembered remembering – when she still could do so. Although not a typical lyric text, Wells asserts, at least on one level, that the poet is present in the writing.

On the other hand, Butler is fully aware that memory is fiction, so she constructs each of the eight sections of this volume with great care – to tell some stories that would or might have happened, & were probably told that way. The first, title, section, sets some formal rules, especially as regards narrators. The poems speak of a ‘she’ & address a ‘you’ who seems obviously to be the author’s grandmother, here losing the words with which she built her world. Yet there is a rather slippery ‘I’ throughout too, who does seem to be the poet remembering another’s memories but who might subtly actually be that other upon occasion.

However slippery the pronouns are, Butler’s language is clear, sharp, but not transparent. The poems use a rich, sensual vocabulary of flora & fauna, delineating each separate item of once loved & now lost local life, now retrieved by the poet to make manifest the world the remembered grandmother can no longer say into being.
In the first section, ‘she’ remembers an aunt who ‘found herself deconstructed word by word until housebound, where only muscle memory told her how to poach fish, and that she did, after all, take sugar with tea.’ But later in the section, ‘you’

Loved this beach once. The wind, the way it rips off the sea on a blustery day, what it drives up onto the sand. Whelks, polished stones, gull feathers battered like spindles. Bottle glass, bright colours scarifed, filmed over. The same look in your eyes now when you turn to me, unsure, not wanting to ask.

Later in ‘Garden,’ the poem searches through remembered tales to find the names now lost to ‘she,’ but once given to her by her father (& the deeper into Wells we go the further back the memories, those fictions, take us): ‘Larkspur, he named , its ultraviolet bells agog with bees. Love-in-a-mist, punch of blue in a jacksnipe of prickles.’ And for a time the names alone, so many & so rich in history, seem enough to carry another’s memory for her. The careful reproduction of these names of flowers & birds helps materialize this lost world.

But that mind losing its memories has many other stories, not all of them gentle, though all mean. There’s the young brother (whose?) who runs through a field of barley where ‘the ground itself was heaving with hornets.’ The final piece of this section, ‘Grain,’ who exactly heard how

All through the autumn, his voice rasped from the hornets’ poison, battered windpipe slow to heal. He wheezed deep in his chest, his voice skittering like something small and angry and winged.

This is fine, minimalist writing, not overdoing anything, catching the horror felt by others, & passed on as remembered story.

In the penultimate sections, which seem to be about the author’s (perhaps ‘implied author’s’ is the better term here) grandmother’s grandparents, the feeling is of how the last memories to go are the earliest ones, these tales, often perhaps of others’ memories she only heard, of her parents’ & grandparents’ live in the 1920s & 1930s. the final section, ‘Flesh,’ returns to the poet & her grandmother, who ‘couldn’t always recall my name, but you knew my touch.’ But even this goes:

Finer and finer the things that hold us. until one day, whatever keeps you here slips. Anchorless, your silver head bobbing toward sleep. My hand on your shoulder, your blue eyes vacant as sea, as sky.

Butler utilizes a powerful grammar throughout to suggest how the loss works, sentence fragments reflect the fragmenting of memory & sense.

Wells is a beautifully sad acknowledgement of the losses all must face, made deeply personal & universal through its sharply observed images of a life now gone. It’s a fine example of how to take lyric & shake it into something beyond the merely personal.

Butler’s chapbook, Spindle, is a series of fragmented ghazals that invite us into a strange place of love (perhaps) & loss (most certainly). These are ghazals in the North American manner, but with a twist. The couplets stand alone, connected only, as John Thompson argued, by a ‘clandestine’ order. Yet that clandestine order is hard at work within each couplet too:

what do i                                 k(no)w
should’ve stayed wallflower            hindsight                     figures

Lots of ways one can read that.

I like the way the spaces, the long pauses in the lines, frustrate the possibility of any narrative, partly because these openings act as lacunae, offering the possibilities of what simply cannot be said, must stay silent between the words & phrases that did make it out onto the page. These are beautifully unsettling poems.

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