Jen Currin. School (Coach House Books 2014).
Back in January 2011, reviewing Jan Currin’s The Inquisition Yours, I suggested that she is working an interesting anti-lyric poetic, in which the ‘I’s of the poems mingle, mix, & often seem close to the poet in the conventional lyric manner but never fix themselves or their action in such a site. This remains true in School, a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frightening, always intriguing collection of advice, admonitions, exhortations, reminiscences, cris-de-couer, in which some I is always alert & on the move. But to where?
Most of the pieces in School take on the sentence, rather than the line, as the controlling formal aspect. In many of the poems each sentence, usually only one line long, serves as a stanza (in some the sentences are broken into 2 or 3 lines). Sometimes, they fulfill much the same role as the couplet does in a ghazal, & they are (dis)connected in the manner John Thompson praised when describing the ghazal: they ‘have no logical, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection.’ ‘The link between [them] is a matter of tone, nuance’; & Currin proves herself a master of same. Yet, like many writers of ghazal in english, Currin does construct odd connections, often with a surrealist twist; as in ‘Back to Our Bodies’:
I still smell the incense of those rooms.
Come back and I will sing for you and show you I am not surprised by death.
A ghost is made when someone dies and feels restless.
She is living in the park with a guitar.
She is one of the critics who most believes.
The city is full of verbs and selfish people.
A quiet class of city dwellers siphoning all the money.
Hovering above their habitual clinics, I saw the sickness and paranoia,
the waves of fatherly protectiveness,
the cold intelligence animating it all.
And I fell.
This ‘I’ wants, a lot. It also feels, especially loss, both personal & worldly (in the sense that it recognizes how much of the world we are losing in our modern rush to take & to have it all). I think the ‘School’ of the title is the world, & that it is schooling the ‘I’ & all the rest of us in ways we both do & do not recognize, but the poems offer some insight into this process we are all suffering. Watch this ‘I’ in action: ‘I have come early to watch this disastrous show // & I am taking notes — using first person, it’s convenient,’ she says in ‘Imperfect Teachers,’ a title whose reference is very wide, indeed, While in ‘Shifting Teachings,’ she (that equally shifting ‘I’) notes ‘All of these ugly books,’ then adds, addressing just whom we must wonder, ‘You never said you understood, & all these years later // I don’t know if you did understand. // There were things we all forgot to do. // Like love.’
Understanding. Teaching. Learning. Listening (& hearing). Both in the politics of love & of, well, politics, these poems make clear that few of us do understand, either the situation or the stakes. School is smart enough to know that a book cannot, & shouldnt try to, teach, but it can, through the gritty pleasure its pieces provide, provoke reflection. It offers wit, precision of speech, weird connections, odd juxtapositions, jarring images, & a variety of moods in a swirl of sentences that refuse to stay still but argue with each other & with their readers. This School is well worth attending.