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How Many of You Are You by Philip Jenks

A dusi/e-chap, 2006


For those familiar with Philip Jenks’ work, How Many of you Are You is both a deepening & a complicating reading experience. It is deepening in that much of Jenks’ personal cosmology is here: those who have read On the Cave You Live In or My first painting will be “The Accuser” will see/hear Jenks’ familiar blending of linguistic register, an Appalachian dialect occurring in the same utterance as high academic jargon; we also see/hear Hydra (the “many-tongued,” itself a kind of personification of Jenks’ polyglotism), as well as allusions to epilepsy. It is complicating in that here Jenks is working through his cosmology from a tightened angle: the focus is on the nexus of place, memory, autobiography, & cultural history. This nexus is itself a major thread in Jenks’ cosmology, though here it is amplified. It is thus fitting that he chose a section of Paul Blackburn’s great poem “The Net of Place” for the book’s epigraph:

When mind dies of its time
It is not the place goes away.

Yet, all that being said, the book is not only for the initiated—it is, like any of Jenks’ books, an entry point into a knotted, rich poetry.

How Many of You Are You is a series of poems responding to photographs taken by Jenks himself. The photographs are stark, black & white capturings of rather mundane appearing buildings, trees, street scenes, & people in Jenks’ Appalachian hometown, Morgantown, West Virginia. Two major precursors for this book that come to my mind are James Agee’s & Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, & Jonathan Williams’ Blues & Roots / Rue & Bluets. Jenks’ book falls, I think, closer to the latter: Famous Men can just as much be understood as documenting a Northern intellectual’s (Agee’s) guilt from being cut off from the itinerant poor as much as it can be understood as a documentation of the lives of the Southern poor of the Depression, while Blues & Roots is a poetic celebration of Blue Ridge Mountain culture (another part of the Appalachians), told in the language of that culture itself. In the case of How Many of You are You, though, it is not so much cultural documentation or celebration that drives the work, as much as it is an investigation of where the personal & cultural meet.

Yet there is clearly a divide between the objective, nondescript photographs, & the poems that interact with them. I am tempted to call it a counter-ekphrasis: rather than bring out what is objectively in the picture, Jenks injects a history, most often highly personal, sometimes cultural (& often simultaneously), giving the picture a new rendering, both clarifying & furthering the mystery of the quotidian thing depicted. In an untitled poem placed after a picture of a small, white church, Jenks writes:

Off on my paper route, exchanging Jesus
For Black Flag. A ridiculous attempt to
Closet the sound it then broke down when I got
Closer and heard them revelating inside.
Sunday papers I would whitely listen from
Those stairs and told my Episcopalian
Minister dad that if I went for it, it’d
be pentacostal. He shudder. Turn all pale.

The phrase “if I went for it, it’d / be pentacostal” also signals an element of Jenks’ cosmology: Hydra, that many-tongued serpent which appears in Jenks’ poems as a shape-shifting say-all, a kind of persona akin to Olson’s Maximus (—maybe a Maximus of Morgantown?). So if Jenks “went for it,” joined the revelators, it would be Hydra, who later makes an appearance in a poem after a picture of a large, ominous-looking house:

Hydra house
Hangs “T.B. Sheets”
Slate shingles influenza influential
Quaffs Maker’s Mark
Crazy John mowed the lawn.
Draw near, John will ask you
“Where’d you get those spindly legs?

Jenks’ language itself is thus Hydratic—necessarily fragmented, multifarious. The address of the poems is often simultaneously to Morgantown, to the photographs that represent the place, & to memory. Look at this section of the poem “Worker Among…Workers?” (which appears after a photograph of a man standing by a ladder, with another person off in the background):

Hi Hello to one other
Person on High Street, the center of
Downtown Morgantown. Nothing has everything
To do with the picture. Husk of building,
Empty personal rapid transit system cars that
shoot like horizontal elevators across the town,
No driver, often no passenger. Hi hello
I am nothing.

That Jenks here is focusing his & our attention on a character in the background is telling—it is much like pointing his invisible memories out, bringing them into the streetscape. Also telling is the sentence “Nothing has everything / To do with the picture:” he is giving us the personal nothing that is everything, the imbued history. At several points in the book, he melds this personal history with the history of Morgantown itself. Take these two poems, after a dismal picture of a schoolhouse:

Black minds. A municipal undertaking
Work Progress Administration it widen
Sick White Magic. Engraved, segregated.
Second Ward (a) Negro Elementary
Also grab it known as “Annex”. Invasion.
Lady Eleanor she show up she herself
Dedicate the Segregated surgery
On the 1925 dilapidate
Dilate the pupils
“New Deal”
White Avenue.

And from “1973”:

In 1973, we debated whether
The new merry go round was
Giant tit or flying saucer.
Call it what you will
I imagined it would spin me
To somewheres bettersafer.
(What happen in the bathroom?)

Starting from the interior (“Black minds”), Jenks moves outward to the cultural, then back to the deepest interior—that questioned & perhaps questionable bathroom. All of it is, perhaps, an approach toward comprehending darkness (in several of the word’s senses). This instance of looking backward into the dark of personal & cultural memory while simultaneously looking at the present remains throughout the book. In the final poem, which is not responding to a particular photograph but, perhaps, to the entire book itself, Jenks writes:

Crushing parallax.
Place not move.

Here Jenks is giving us his paradox: that he is rooted in both the past & the present, making an attempt to effect the present place with memories of its past. This is the parallax of the work itself, which occurs when the moving mind embodied in these poems clash with these utterly still photographs. It is also our challenge: to enter into that both still & convulsive place Jenks’ mind has accrued, gathered, inscribed, & given.

--Review by Joseph Bradshaw

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