You can find the book here: WHAT THE OWL TAUGHT ME
By Greg Ben
Within six months, poet Jennifer Firestone published two pivotal works: Ten and Story. Both books of poetry follow 2017’s remarkable Gates & Fields (published via Belladonna*), and both resemble a conceptual understanding of their predecessor’s interest in poetic movement and observation, voice, and the poet’s relationship to time and space.
The two leafless trees operate by wind,
When one behaves the brain responds, the gesture
absorbed. (Ten, page 11)
In Ten, the first of the two published works, Firestone presents a series of 10-line poems that were written during her time restricted to a single room. In circumstances that follow knee surgery, these poems of constraint are matched with and blended through a second sequence of prose narratives exploring the underlying architecture of emotion, livelihood, and creative liberation.
While the 10-line poems are fascinating on their own, the prose interjects and offers context, and clues into the why of the writing and the how of the writer. The earliest section of prose describe the moments leading into the surgery, which would result in the 10-line project: “What you can say is there was a burning, up, up the body. They had given you the meds too late. Isn’t that basic, make sure the patient gets her meds before pain kicks in. You cried right before going in. Yes it’s knee surgery, but you pleased, ‘I have kids!’ It was genuine but you also thought maybe your tears accompanied with saying ‘kids’ would get extra attention.”
As the quote reveals, Firestone’s writing is closely aligned with the lived, daily experiences she encounters pre- and post-surger. The short journey of Ten is not just summation; Firestone is concerned with an examination of self-determination, exercising power and action within constraint, and exploring the openness of possibility within an explicit physical environment. The result? Firestone’s creeping sense of wonder glides between concrete and abstract observations:
The setting shifts. I am a tiresome sea.
Surely, sight has value. Say it. Thoughts
quaking. Quietly I shift,
anxiously awaiting the end.
“I am infinity,” claims he. (page 17)
The world within her room crosses through the window to the world just outside, and the poems only expand from there. Within the 10-line poems especially, undefined characters with their own fragments of language support the liminal and the ambiguous within Firestone’s project. The tone is cryptic and shifting. Firestone’s poems contain rhythms seen and unseen, as hinted at through this moment ars poetica: “The idea is to freshen up, give things a twist. When you’ve stretched out each menial task as far as they might extend, putty that becomes so thin it’s stringy, you look at Ten. There it is, bricks stacking. Its tidiness deceiving. The words rush, then slip” (page 51)
While in many of its moments the book feels like a day log composed of curious observations and poetic maneuvering, Ten is also a longitudinal expression of life within recovery. There is imperative and there is urgency and there is, really, a longing to overcome and thrive. While reading Ten, I was reminded of Frida Kahlo’s life working with spina bifida. I was also reminded of David Wolach’s 2013 examinations of chronic illness and the “Hospital Industrial Complex” in Hospitalogy. I also thought of my own, similar history as an artist—in 2013 I suffered a blood clot, and was bound to my home under physical recovery, while engaging with an incessant opiate addiction. Far from melodramatic, Firestone’s work is ever-personal, a clear portrayal of self, a chiseled proclamation of experience, and it also feels incredibly relatable.
To have a book from 2019 concerned with questions on how to be an artist in times of constraint feels oddly like a premonition or foreshadowing. Today, under COVID-19, many of us see the same rooms, stare at the same trees, hear the same voices each and every day. Our world shrinks. The world becomes cyclical, repetitive. As a result, our minds deflate, become tired, and the world melts, becomes more abstract. Blurs and blends. Is Firestone’s book of poems, then, a representation of what we are currently experiencing? Or perhaps it is a rhetoric, a blueprint, for how we can respond. Either way, Ten is an applicable, evolving document that I cannot recommend more in mid-2020.
If Ten explores the power behind and overcoming of constraint, then its follow-up, Story, exercises the inverse. It is a book more rooted in the future, more concerned with the past. It is a book about remembering, about defining memory, and about the construction of reality through language, through poetry. It is also a book about trauma and traumatic experience, and how we—as individuals and as groups—respond to trauma during its initialization and presence.
The book’s story is also nearly inverse the story of Ten: the protagonist and her partner are tourists in a tropical locale when they encounter a terrible accident, an event of such violence that the tension of juxtaposition is ever-present. The book is about that violence, just as it is about arriving to that violence and trying to live beyond that violence. Story is also that locale, that setting, and the implications inform the book’s narrative. Story pushes the world into a meaningful constraint, an identifiable form, though through filters of glaze and dream.
Like Ten, Story shows Firestone’s attention to form and container as significant and prioritized. A much different book visually, Story contains mostly pages of four lines, listed in the following order: a statement unbound by quotation marks, a statement bound by quotation marks, a statement unbound by quotation marks, and a statement bound by quotation marks, as with the following:
When the body wriggled like a fish on land, lines of logic dissipated.
“Slim fish, films.”
It was like this: she wondered is this my narrative?
“Waves crack, pour.” (Story, page 32)
Lines are distanced from one another. Each inform each other in more or less direct ways. There are themes between the quotes and the unquoted. The voices are never defined. There is puzzle building and puzzle solving. There is synchronicity and asynchronicity. As the book unfolds, the observations from the past surface. It is fascinating to look at the weaving between the two strands of thought, and wonder where these strands originated. Perhaps there are more than two strands—the ambiguity is intelligent and concerning, keeping the book pinned open, keeping a narrative from reaching any level of comfort as it develops.
While a book completed through just the patterned language described above would be captivating, Firestone splices her work on multiple occasions with variance of form. Story, like Ten, also contains a strong sense of rhythm. The first splice in the book, for example, breaks down the form from the four lines into a single line: “To my dear story gristling in the wind” (page 48). Two pages later, a set statements are listed in rapid succession on the page, including:
The bar man prepared several ornate tropical drinks repeatedly.
Presumably the ambulance crew patiently rattled protocol while lifting.
Presumably another tourist couple hopped into the back with humanitarian kindness. (page 52)
This falling and rising through language mimics thought processes and memory: from the focus on a single image that can sit in consciousness for what feels like an eternity, to the focus on a barrage of images that feels relentless and overwhelming, trauma is never so simple as ebb and flow. With memory systems within Story driven by images of the locale’s water, tide, and beaches, Firestone’s language is compelling. It is empirical while also feeling distant. It is focused while also feeling spread thin. The poet explores these movements of trauma, the approachability and untouchability of it, through the content and its form. And there are many surprises to both, which are worth discovering through a read of the book directly rather than second-hand, here.
When considering what is said versus what is quoted, when thinking about what is proven and final versus what is felt and squishy, Firestone considers larger constructs of polarization and contentious relationships in how we learn, how we feel, and how we know. Where Ten held a much more lenient understanding of the connection between concrete and abstract, the weight of both feels much more intense in Story. Knowing what is concrete and knowing what is abstract suddenly is filled with implications: what happened that day, on the beach, and what does it matter? How is it processable? In thinking about process, I was reminded of White Noise by Don DeLillo, of Staying Alive by Laura Sims, of Things That Go by Laura Eve Engel. In each of these works, there is a “large something,” and understanding that something is the point, and the point can only be reached by reaching forward, by attempting to grasp. In a way that differs completely from Ten in intention, Story too is about power.
Did she emerge wet and coronated, past the sorrows of her human face?
“With grace, murmurs.” (page 72)
Much can be said about Story and I hope a lot is; the work is significant and complex and there’s nothing quite like it. And there is so much about it as a collection and as a paradigm that feels important to our world today, right now. To say it too is timely would be an understatement; that so many are struggling to learn, understand, and even identify the source of the global public health crisis is applicable to this text. And derivable from this text.
Firestone’s writing feels as if it was written about our world right now, with each day feeling like a distant memory and each moment of thinking and feeling combined into a mixture of the exhausting and the enthralling. When thought of alongside Ten, a book of so much “stay alive, stay inside,” I find incredible lengths of beauty and intelligence.
It would be a disservice to not mention that like Gates & Fields, both of Firestone’s latest books are precisely and adamantly feminist. Jennifer Firestone is front and center. Her voice is front and center. And her work contains comments on gender—via presence, authority, and relationships. It is exciting to me to see Firestone’s trajectory, her personal canon, continue to explore the world, personally and generally, while also honoring her personal experiences and her voice. We have strong works to keep us company while in anticipation of Firestone’s future creative projects.
You can find the books here: https://uglyducklingpresse.org/publications/story/ and http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/ten-by-jennifer-firestone-518/
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.