Jennifer Keith, Truant Season, Apathy Press Poets, 2022, 44 pages ISBN 9798837190803
Poems are not newspaper writing. Sometimes instant comprehension is not going to happen because poetry is an extraordinarily spiced and enriched language that can be ambiguous and/or multidimensional in its music, meaning, and vocabulary. Sometimes the inexpressible is expressed. However, when I read poems, prose, anything I look for context and the drama behind the declarative. Sometimes I discover it immediately, sometimes it takes longer, like digesting a meal. Jennifer Keith is an extremely talented poet, more so than most in my opinion. Her knowledge and vocabulary are beyond the average scribbler.
Let us begin with an exploration of a possibly more accessible poem in the book. It seems self-contained in its manner of suggesting so much more than its literal self.
Indigo planets orbiting
the bottom of the bowl,
almost out of season now,
eaten, savored, one at a time,
not blue at all, really:
that trick of white suspension
over black, like milk
spilled onto asphalt,
or the sky one might think
will be nothing but this
from now on, a bowl of bliss
horizon to horizon.
Our eyes are lying, seeing
blue, that rarest of things,
when it is just atmosphere, a veil
over unimaginable dark.
The above poem is remarkably open to immediate comprehension, but the expansion of the subject via metaphor is remarkable too. Also, read the poem out loud. Get an appreciation for the sound. The ending lingers with you—“unimaginable dark.” The metaphor and its images are the engines on which our consciousness rides. The imagery may seem so obvious when reading the poem, but it is the poet’s leap of genius which gets us to our appreciative recognition.
A more difficult poem is Over And Over.
OVER AND OVER
It’s that cruel medical examiner who lays down the law.
What happened here is a shame on you,
a story of being fooled twice.
Post mortem: concerned friends in the café.
Smart friends, bad choices, cups of self-esteem,
going back for more punishment.
The research grant is canceled; funds retreat.
It was a matter of trying the same thing again and again
and expecting a different result.
The newspaper’s story on the hellish GiF
of prisoners in the exhausted revolving door
of action and consequence, of repeat and fade.
This is a relapsing disease. The cells return
to what they know. Hope stains a target
on my heart. And there—the ruby spark.
History books in a bonfire: We are tired of this,
old people accusing the young
of defiling the sacred old stories in franchises.
Faraway on a hill banked in thunderheads,
the goatee’d kook and his lightning rod,
cavorting and giggling, promising never again.
This poem does speak to me in a general way. The medical examiner, the post-mortem are metaphors, not the subject, not specific contextual ingredients of the situation of the poem. In talking to Ms. Keith I discovered that the whole poem is about relationships and how people often make the same mistakes in them. Read it with that basic thought in mind and everything fits together.
The range of metaphors is interesting in themselves, but sometimes they can lead a casual reader astray. The question is the contextual setting. After mention of the research grant, the next stanza brings in the image of prisoners—-literal or figurative prisoners? Does it matter? In a contextual sense, it would. In a figurative sense, it doesn’t because the poem is not about a literal penal system. That is an expressive metaphor.
“History books in a bonfire: We are tired of this, old people accusing the young of defiling the sacred old stories in franchises.” The old corrupting the time-honored stories by leasing out new interpretations which fail like any reinterpretation. “Franchises” is a unique way of expressing this. The poet has many layers of thought in her expressions. I have to admit that as a reader my own assumptions and ignorance get in the way of the leap of the imagination which is required here. What is literal is the emotion behind the words. You have to be flexible with an imaginative challenging poet. The reader has to follow the stream of thought.
The goatee’d kook and his lightning rod is the devil, who is gloating “got you again” with a hoped-for but thwarted, failed relationship. The underlying layer of the poem is not that difficult to comprehend, but the poet’s ingenuity with images and metaphors may be beyond the more literal-minded.
There is a lot more work in the book. First of all, there are poems that do not provide circumstantial or clinical details but are about raw emotion itself. There is such a thing as confessional poetry. However, Ms. Keith has the right like all people to keep the details of her intimate life secret. The poem DID YOU KNOW SHE HAS A SECRET LIFE? is very much about that.
that there are several keys on her ring
that aren’t for home, or car, or office drawer.
You see her leave at night, come home at night,
to track the dirt of graves upon the carpet,
and stumble to the bath to watch the scarlet
plumes and glimmers of regret swirl down
the drain. Her eyes are bullet holes again.
Remember her, the watch she keeps tonight,
and the place she goes where you have never been.
Is the poem about the subconscious, dreams, nightmares, memories, writing poems by visiting your own life again? Is it about strong emotions and events, and people you have cared for and interacted with? Perhaps the subject of the poem is all of the above, but it is certainly about the inner life and the solitary self. I think all of us can relate to this poem on a basic level without doing a study of Ms. Keith’s biography. Everyone has a hidden emotional life that is protected, kept private. Though ostensibly about the mysterious, the poem opens up and communicates in a general way.
Truant Season is a very short book at 44 pages but there is a lot of intensity in it, a lot of memorable lines. The poetry is filled with dramatic tension. Even a little list illustrates this. The poem LIFETIME begins:
For Starters, take your pick from certain words—
(“Betrayal” is perhaps the queen of all)
There’s ‘innocence” and “justice,” “Cry for Help,”
“Deception.” “Evil,” “Enemy,” and “fall—”
The subject matter of the book is sometimes centered in the circumstantial, but often, sometimes simultaneously, in the emotional world. Jennifer Keith has a wide range of subject matter and a talent for words and images. Her poems can be read again and again and new insights and imaginative experiences can be had. She isn’t an easy poet to pin down at limes, but that is because her consciousness is so layered it takes the reader into different realms to explore. There is a fierce poem—- titled IN SEARCH OF LOVE I BURNED A CITY DOWN. Here is the first stanza:
In search of love, I burned a city down
And watched the buildings curtsey, one by one
In flouncing flames and silver stoles of smoke.
Survivors streamed in screams from every door
To testify to waiting microphone
And thank their gods they all got out in time.
The above lines are no aberration. All the poems are filled with imaginative, expressive language. The reader can sit down and read these poems over and over again and get more sensation and meaning from them. Better than I can state it is the blurb by Adam Tavel, the author of his own book of poetry Sum Ledger, who writes “Rueful, vibrant, and exacting, Jennifer Keith’s Truant Season celebrates the elemental wonders of the natural world while simultaneously confronting the myriad hypocrisies, injustices, and absurdities of our solipsistic lives.” The only thing I can add, though not as eloquently, is that Jenny Keith’s poems transport their reader into a different realm of reality. Do you want lived, articulated, explored experience, which will enrich your own life, thinking, and ability to express yourself, read this book of poems.
© Jennifer Keith and Dan Cuddy
Jennifer Keith is a web content writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine, and writes poetry and fiction. She attended the University of Virginia and graduated from the American University in Washington, D.C. with a degree in Cinema. Her poems, stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, The Patuxent Review, The Nebraska Review, The Free State Review, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. Keith is the recipient of the 2014 John Elsberg poetry prize, and her poem
“Eating Walnuts” was selected by Sherman Alexie for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2015. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. In the past, he was a contributing editor of the Maryland Poetry Review and an editor for Lite: Baltimore’s Literary Newspaper. He has had a book of poetry published, Handprint on the Window, in 2003. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, the Pangolin Review, Madness Muse Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, the Rats’s Ass Review, Roanoke Review, the Amethyst Review, and Gargoyle.
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