Jennifer Still plays the silences

Jennifer Still. Comma. (BookThug 2017).

As a sign of just how large & crowded the poetry scene, just in Canada, is, although she has published 2 previous books & been nominated for many awards, Comma is my first encounter with Jennifer Still’s writing, & right up front I must tell you it’s a brilliant & complexly moving book, a kind of serial-of serials volume constructed out of several hand-made chapbooks (at least one of which appeared in an edition of one).

Comma as inscribed on its cover displays a major aspect of Still’s writing practice here, that of what she calls in the long assembly of prose fragments that anchors the book at its centre, ‘Paper Acts’: ‘Erasure as regeneration. Silent stammer.’ The full word indicates a pause, the shorter one inside it, ’my long pause’ of her brother’s illness, his breath held by machines, full of trauma to be dealt with, & lasting years. How she dealt with this erasure/loss, it seems, was to write & then cut, to inscribe through blank space on the page the empty space in her life of his silent apartness. She tells us: ‘My brother’s illness was a constant process of breakdown and regeneration. Under his long sleep, the physiology that took place inside his body was almost unthinkable. A re-building of the skin. The nail. The eyelid. The voice.’ Among the many other things it does, Comma enacts that breakdown & rebuilding in words.

There are 7 sections to Comma, each one (but the explanatory ‘Paper Acts’) a powerful & dynamic example of intense construction-as-deconstruction, the power of ever fewer words ranged across the open field of the page. Among the many texts Still quotes, paraphrases, & alludes to, Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space plays an important role, but I would perhaps call what she does in Comma a rhythmics of spacing, how words & phrases carefully laid out far apart on the page can be made to sing their silence. As Miles Davis said, ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,’ & Still makes wonderful use of the not there, the silent spaces, in Comma.

Comma begins with a single poem, ‘Chrysalis,’ in which Still alludes to her brother’s coma while preparing readers for the ways in which the following sections will work – on them. ‘Somewhere / just below the breath, silence / reorders’; ‘I sit quietly at my desk. Scraps / of sounds work into something’; ‘You are turning back /into yourself.’ In the book these two actions are united in both the words finally found & the wide open spaces between so many of them.

Still does collage, bricolage, she makes beautiful constructs, ‘the honest and raw and intimate . . . handmade that I want my writing to embody.’ And that final word is important, these poems seek to be embodiment, something we touch, we feel, not just read.

Of course, because they are so openly spaced, or reproductions of handmade pages (& BookThug has done a terrific job of that), with drawings, pen & pencil & typed words & phrases, much of Comma resists any easy quotation (& indeed, some of the reproduced pages are deliberately difficult to read, though lovely to look at, & that is part of their deliberate resistance to ordinary comprehension: they refuse easy commentary as they offer us a kind of ghost writing/drawing, a stark beauty to be felt as much as read.

‘Blue’ offers a series of fragmented takes on that colour: ‘the last hue to print / when the toner runs dry’; ‘BLUES are small and usually / secret’ leading to ‘MY BLUE / the smallest of all / its / well- / camouflaged / tongue.’ The spacings play the silence beautifully. ‘Scroll’ begins in dreams, & dream dis-logic dislodges images, phrases throughout. The poems are first quite aggressive, then something as quietly lovely as ‘Rush-Wick’ emerges: ‘From stair to star the i is drifting.’ ‘Swarm’ is inscribed on the pages of Still’s ‘mother’s Le Voyageur exercise scribbler,’ words & drawings/ illustrations scattered across the yellow pages, hard to read, lovely to look at. ‘Papery Acts,’ with its many quotations mixed with Still’s own thoughts on her writing practice, delivered as a lecture, explores her poetics & provides a better introduction to Comma than any commentary could. ‘Thorn’ is perhaps the strongest example of erasure in the book, reproduced pages of collaged cutouts leading to fuller poems of ‘Hedge,’ where ‘The line grows into itself. / Trying for the widest possible // privacy’; different readers will have different associations, for me Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS & the work of Susan Howe comes immediately to mind. ‘Greif Silhouettes’ mourns across its pages the continuing destruction of birds & trees, of the very fields of flowers & grasses her brother studied reflected in the fields of its pages. And finally ‘Comma’ reads through & under her ‘brother’s handwritten field guide of prairie grasses,’ finding in his words a way to say her specific keeping watch while he slowly healed in that long pause.

Comma, this beautiful piece of book making, is simply a deeply moving, rhythmically sparse & intense, example of how the traditional lyric can be transcended while never losing lyric’s subtle song. A book to read & reread, a major work.

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