Talk About Poetry was delighted to host an extended reading and a discussion of the poetry of Jasmine Bailey with Ms. Bailey, and with working poets Phil Memmer, Georgia Popoff, and me, Bob Herz. (More about them below.) The reading is here. The discussion is here.
Jasmine Bailey studied at George School, Colgate University, and the University of Virginia. She taught English in Argentina as a Fulbright scholar and at Colgate University as an Olive B. O’Connor fellow. Her chapbook, Sleep and What Precedes It, won the 2009 Longleaf Press Chapbook Prize, and her recent book, Alexandria, won the prestigious CNY Book Award for poetry.
Reviewing Alexandria, the American Literary Review said that “Though the poems are infused with loss,… [the] speaker in these poems has moved beyond mourning and toward wisdom and the confusion of what it is to accept loss. She wants to hold it up, look at it, understand it. The tone is wistful, contemplative, acquiescent.”
That’s an accurate description of the effort of the poems, that process of working through general loss and specific losses. It’s impressive how she does it, and the variety of ways by which she does it, and it draws me back to the poems to marvel at a construction whose designing hand is so light that I sometimes barely see it, or a construction which at first seems seems arbitrary but which as I finish the individual poem feels necessary. The imagery is invariably startling, and there is an openness to experience and a generosity here that I find unique and compelling.
Perhaps I can illustrate best by discussing these aspects of her writing in the title poem, Alexandria. Here is the poem
I wanted to affirm
that all were equally invited
to the world
and my little table in it,
no bruise upon the grass.
So many failures,
plain as roses
I saw a hummingbird at rest
against the brief coral sky.
how his lungs emptied and filled,
his heart’s mad vigil.
Every moment the Galapagos
New islands will come later,
but it’s the dying ones
This is no more paraphrasable or reducible to a series of declarative or philosophical statements than any good poem. But by considering the situation of the poet, as she describes it, and by understanding her use of imagery, we may broaden and deepen our appreciation of what she has accomplished. Then we can link this title poem of the book to the book’s epigraph, which is from Cavafy’s poem, The God Abandons Anthony, whose geography is Alexandria. There is a richness and rigorousness to her use of the Cavafy poem.
We can start with with what we know about the speaker of this poem. We don’t know much about her generally, but about some specific things we know a great deal. We don’t know, for example, if she is tall or short, owns property, drives a Honda or a Ford, has a dog, or children, or lives in Alaska. She has decided that we don’t need to know those things, because they are incidental to the purposes of the poem, which is about the loss of essential things, the life that passes away, and not incidentals or minor attributes.
But of those things we can know, we know a great deal. We know for example that the poet is modest, able to speak without irony of “my little table” in the world, and that she is generous, wanting the world and her table to be known as a welcome place where unnamed and unknown others will feel “equally invited.” She also says that this should be a place where all are protected and where coming to her table will “leave no bruise upon the grass.”
As I read it, that affirmation in the first line (“I wanted to affirm”) is to be read as a repetition of a prior invitation, as if some might not have received the invitation, or perhaps not understood or believed it. We are to understand this as her saying that she means it, that she really does want a world and a place in it for herself where everyone will feel welcome. It is a utopian wish, of course. In this real world in which we live, many are not invited, or do not feel that they have a place. She acknowledges this reality: “So many failures,” she says, and then follows with an image of the failure: “plain as roses / on cloth.”
These roses are one of the many wonderful multivalent images in the book. Consider some of the meanings that collect here. Real roses do not take root and grow on cloth, thus must die, however beautiful they may be for a time, the way beautiful thoughts must always fail before the reality of a harsh and difficult world. If these are cloth roses, then they are an artificial depiction of reality, beautiful in a way but also not satisfactory as something real. And there is linkage here, a suggestion that the cloth could be or refer to a table cloth, thus linking to “my little table” earlier in the poem, the failure then that overspreads her own table in the world.
There are two powerful remaining images in the poem: the hummingbird, and the Galapagos islands. When I first read the poem they felt surprising but also in some ways arbitrary, not springing or developing from the lines that had preceded them. But—and perhaps this will be the experience of other readers—by the time I finished the poem, they felt inevitable. It is an experience I repeat with each re-reading: the arbitrary, the willfully chosen, becomes inevitable and organic. I do not know how it happens.
The hummingbird is first brought into the poem as a casual observation, perhaps (I’m speculating, as this is not in the poem) the result of looking up from the “little table.” But then it becomes a symbol of life’s enormous effort at stillness, at being—”how his lungs emptied and filled, / his heart’s mad vigil” while “at rest / against the brief coral sky.”
As I read this, the hummingbird is also meant to be a synecdoche, a part of life in place of us all who labor so to exist in a world that changes quickly (that “brief coral sky”). As the bird has become the symbol of the briefness of our stay here, and of the effort put into being ourselves in that briefness, another image comes forward to amplify its significance. The Galapagos islands “edge further / towards oblivion” which I read as another synecdoche, this one for the world. If pressed for a summary statement from the two images, it would be something like, we die, all things die, the world passes, the world changes.
That summary of course is a reductionist violation, but we can use it to map the movement of the poem to this point: it opens with a statement by the poet of a world she wants to exist, in which all things have a place and leave no “bruise upon the grass,” but which she knows to be a failure, and part of that failure is that things die and cease to be, as roses cease to be on cloth, and that at best we create an artificial vision of permanent roses, but that vision must itself be unsatisfactory.
I use this kind of reductionism only to show that there is an underlying structure to the poem, and to create the bridge to the last stanza, that brings the whole poem together.
The final stanza says that all things change and are succeeded (“New islands will come later”) and their successors will also be loved (remember that “all were equally invited / to the world” from earlier in the poem) but it is the passing things, the way of life itself, the dying movement toward oblivion “that I love.” That is a truly extraordinary and lovely affirmation. It is also, in the construct of this poem, very sophisticated and utterly believable. I think this is an extraordinary poem, which is why I wanted to write about it here.
With this poem, the poet meets the injunction from Cavafy that opens the book, to say goodbye to what is passed and passing, because you and everything you see will pass. The injunction is from the poem, The God Abandons Anthony. The book quotes only the last eight lines, but the entire poem is meaningful here:
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
We discuss this poem at length in the new Talk About Poetry. The other participants are Phil Memmer, director of the Syracuse YMCA Downtown Writers Center, and author of four books of poems: The Storehouses of the Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams (2012); Lucifer: A Hagiography (2009), which was awarded the 2008 Idaho Prize for Poetry from Lost Horse Press; Threat of Pleasure (2008), winner of the Adirondack Literary Award for Poetry; and Sweetheart, Baby, Darling (2004). Also Georgia Popoff, a poet based in Central New York, a teacher and an editor. She has published two collections of poetry, one chapbook, and coauthored a text for teachers on poetry in public classrooms. The books are The Doom Weaver (Main Street Rag Publications), 2008) and most recently Psalter: The Agnostic’s Book of Common Curiosities, (Tiger Bark Press), which has generated a lot of praise and comment, and which was the subject of prior Talk About Poetry programs (https://soundcloud.com/bobherz/georgia-popoffs-psalter and https://soundcloud.com/bobherz/georgia-popoff-reading-s-from-her-book-psalter-the-agnostics-book-of-common-curiosities)