The Sustain Pedal, Poems by Carol Jennings, Cherry Grove Collections, 2022, ISBN 9781625494009
Carol Jennings’s The Sustain Pedal is a very beautiful collection of poems that deserves a wide reading. Poetry and music have sustained her during her long life—she is a year older than I am–and this collection is a culmination of a life passionately lived. She is very musical; it’s as if her poems are accompanied by the haunting melodies and rhythms of Chopin and those of other composers, with the pitiless metronome of time in the background, the latter ending in total stillness. Her language is musical as well, as this excerpt from the poem, All Hallows’ Eve, indicates:
Because of tilt of earth and angle
of sunlight, autumn crisps and curls
across summer’s fading fullness
in its unrelentling passage.
One of the themes of her poetry in this autumnal collection is revealed in this, and in many other passages as well: the fleeting duration of human existence, the indubitable fact that our time on earth is brief and that clocks of our hearts will soon be stopped by death. For instance, the brevity of our lives, here compared to the near-infinite lifespan of the visible universe, is clearly demonstrated by the last two lines of the poem Clairvoyance:
I don’t mind a slight blur while standing at a canyon’s edge
to count rock strata that reveal the brevity of my time
To look across an unpolluted sky that proves
the slight measure of my place in the dust
Notice the adjective my in my time and my place; all the poems are personal, an intimacy uncloaked by generalization. Although biographical material is scattered throughout, it is used by the author merely as material to construct noteworthy poems; the poems are not confessional poems.
I would like now to discuss two poems of the collection, Ultima Thule and Russian Dream.
One of my favorite poems of the collection, Ultima Thule, illustrates Jennings’s method of composition. She writes primarily to please herself; the content of her poems is always filtered through the alembics of the sine qua nons of writing good poetry. First of all, the language used must be clean and pleasant on the ear. Second, the poem must convey a poetic meaning, not necessarily a logical, prosaic one. All poets must comply with the first rule; regarding the second, language poets such as Wallace Stevens, compose poems the meanings of which can be quite ambiguous. Jennings, like most modern poets, follows both principles. Her language is clean, but the gist of the poems can almost always be summarized in prose. Let us now quote the poem Ultima Thule in its entirety.
On the icy fringes of
a solar system we call ours,
your two spheres melded
In soft collision. Bright scarf
circles the point of contact
so you resemble a lopsided
snowman, look not unfriendly
as caught in photos by
spacecraft hurtling to reach
outer edge of the Kuipfer Belt
before burning out.
I look at three quarters of a century,
measured in revolutions
around the sun, a few lines
written, adagios on the piano,
ancient ruins entered, dreams
that twist dark reality,
the deaths that keep coming.
On Mauna Kea, the Milky Way
seems to wrap itself around
our lonesome minor planet,
where I have never felt at home.
Ultima Thule, you will be
among the last to melt
as our star expands in death throes.
Your name meaning
place beyond the known—
I want it to be yours alone.
This poem is a good illustration of what I mean by stating that Jennings writes to please herself. (Like so many poets of quality, she has I imagine, given up the drive to become famous: The vast majority of poets with strong name recognition are, for the most part, dead.) She wrote this poem, I assume, shortly after the NASA flyby of the minor planet Ultima Thule, now known as Arrokoth. One cannot assume, without footnotes, that the average reader would know that Ultima Thule is a tiny binary rock in the Kuipfer belt, 4 billion miles from the Sun; the most distant object in the solar system at the time of its discovery in 2014. As Jennings explains, the two spheres joined together by a “soft collision;” a “bright scarf” between them records their ancient contact. Who would have known, without a google or two, that the rock literally looks like a lopsided snowman? (Supplying footnotes is not a very aesthetic thing to do.) The derivation of the term Ultima Thule is as follows: Ultima, Latin for farthermost, is combined with Thule, a mythical land beyond the borders of the known world.
The second stanza of the poem adds dark, personal material. The poet is now seventy-five years old; what has she accomplished? A few lines written–She is being very modest here, darkly self-critical; she has written remarkable poetry. Most poets, however, at least occasionally, feel as lonely and isolated as Ultima Thule; the cold rocks of the Kuipfer Belt scattered around it, blindly obeying the laws of physics, hardly constitute an audience, She favors playing adagios on the piano, no major-key allegro con brios for her, who has never felt at home on our ‘lonesome minor planet,’ compared with a distant, cold dead rock, billions of miles away. She is of course unfair both to herself and to the marvelous planet on which she resides; however, she is being true to her feeling at the time she wrote this poem; mastery of craft and raw feeling might make a sad poem, but a genuine poem nevertheless. In the last stanza, she refers to the time when our sun will expand, about four billion years hence; having long since obliterated the Earth, Ultima Thule will warm up and be among ‘the last to melt.” The last line turns the poem on its head, which good last lines have been known to do. I interpret it to mean that she would like the place beyond the known to be reserved for Ultima Thule alone, that is, the ambiguities and many pains of existence on Earth would be resolved.
A memorable poem.
The second poem which I have chosen for more detailed analysis is Russian Dream, which I will now quote in its entirety.
I dream myself
In St. Petersburg,
a city I have never seen.
The time fifty years
before I am born,
and the Pathétique is débuted,
led by the composer
just nine days before
his mystery death.
I am pulled into the lyric
of dolorous descent
in his second theme,
as I have been every time,
since I heard it
first at age ten.
When the end comes,
and the pulsating cellos
fade into stillness,
I want to tell him—
before I am forced
to leave the dream
for my own life—
that I know
he was not free to love,
and I am sorry.
One of the reasons I was chosen to review this marvelous collection is because I am a poet and an amateur musician as well; unlike many readers, I understand all the musical references that occur throughout the book. That she felt ‘Pulled into the lyric/ of dolorous descent/ in his second theme’ (in his sixth symphony), says a lot about Jennings’s character. Those deeply affected by music will instantly understand what the poet is referring to. Tchaikovsky, as demonstrated by the wistful theme Jennings is referring to, had an extraordinary gift for melody; he was , however, a very unhappy man, a fact which comes across in his hyperemotional symphonies. In the fourth symphony, we hear the rhythm of fate which crushed the composer; in his final symphony which Jennings refers to, the feelings of melancholy, self-pity and resignation come across hauntingly. The melody Jennings refers to is one of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful; the emotions that come across, at least for this listener, is a sad coming to terms that life has turned out, to put it mildly, not the way he would have liked it; a very sweetly poignant farewell to life comes across as well. The last seven lines of the poem are very revealing. She leaves the ‘dream’ (sometimes more like a nightmare) of her life to tell the composer, that is, telling herself as well, that she knew, due to nineteenth century constraints and the melancholy nature of the man (there are indeed a near-infinite number of ways to become melancholy in this life) that Tchaikovsky was ‘not free to love’—hints of determinism, the lack of free will, even self-hate for not being what one’s ideal image wants one to be, are revealed here.
When I was trained in poetry, I learned about the importance of the last line in a poem, which summarizes the entire poem often with a jolt of surprise. The last line here is excellent; Jennings is sorry for the composer, but really is sorry for herself and the sadness of her life as well. She, like the great composer, has lived a life with many regrets. Sure, we might have preferred a more mature Bach or Mozart reference, but the expression of a negative emotion in a successful poem is a triumph, nevertheless.
The theme of the book is the evanescence of life, the brevity and tragedy of human existence; this is partially countered by beauty, specifically, the beauty of music. Music, however, exists in time; even Wagner operas come to an end. The chief metaphor of the book, present in its title, is the sustain pedal. The sustain pedal permits notes to be sustained by removing contact from the dampers on strings for the duration that the pedal is pressed. It gives one a very brief experience of permanence. As she writes in “A Flickering Light,” the first poem of the collection:
The way a flickering light
can trick the eye to see it
as a constant, and knowing
this may be the antidote
I hold, however, that there is more to life than the illusion of permanence which a flickering life under certain circumstances affords. For instance, in a poem by Harvey Lillywhite, the ‘Flickering light’ becomes a button; the poem concludes with the following lines;’ I’ll know/ How to hear when you call/A last time to promise/to deliver the one button I own/ to your unfathomable wardrobe.” What’s missing in Jennings’s poems is cosmic connection. The universe might be near-infinite, while humans are very finite indeed. But the fact that we’re the only known species in whose finite brains fits, as it were, at least as a concept, the entire universe. This paradox can provide a source of wonder.
The cover of the collection gives us a view of the pedals of a piano much as a child would see it. Jennings’s poem, ‘Year of My Birth.’ concludes with the following lines: ‘I crawled under the grand piano,/where Mother played her homage/to a more romantic time,/ watched her right foot depress/and release the sustain pedal/ again and again.’
She used the sustain pedal to sustain the song of the flickering light of human existence. This provides a consolation, which, however, like everything else in Jennings’s view of things, soon comes to an end.
The lack of a cosmic philosophy, however, doesn’t detract from the beauty and poignance of most of the poems. Though I do my best to resist, not always successfully, the negative aspects of life, I have a great affinity for Jennings’s poetry and her aesthetic. At best, her poems, with the help of the sustain pedal, transform the flickering light of human existence into great poetry, not a mean achievement. This is a remarkable collection.
© Carol Jennings and Thomas Dorsett
Carol Jennings grew up in western New York State. She attended The College of Wooster and received her B.A., M.A., and J.D. from New York University. She resides in Washington, DC, where she worked as an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection for more than 30 years. Her poems have appeared in publications including The Loch Raven Review, The New York Quarterly, Potomac Review, Chautauqua, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and two anthologies. Her first poetry collection, The Dead Spirits at the Piano, was published by Cherry Grove Collections in 2016.
Examples of Thomas Dorsett‘s poetry have appeared in over 500 literary journals, including Confrontation, Southern Poetry Review, North Carolina Review, The Texas Review, Poem, and California Quarterly. He is the author of a number of collections as well. In addition to being a poet, a translator, and an essayist, he also has been a medical doctor for many years.