Poetry is a lot like yoga: it asks you to stretch out of your comfort zone, and the level of difficulty varies from situation to situation. Nobody’s Jackknife, the first full-length collection from Pittsburgh’s own Ellen McGrath Smith, functions as a master class for advanced readers and a challenge to motivated beginners. Like the best classes, it is by turns gentle and fierce, and by the time you get to the end of it, you should be glowing and panting a little bit; if not, you might be reading it wrong … or, at least, not wholeheartedly.
The yoga metaphor fits because Smith used it first: an entire section of Nobody’s Jacknife is made up of poems that bear the name of specific poses. These pieces explore the nature of the pose and its relationship to the world in which one poses, as explained in “Downward Facing Dog (adho mukha svanasana)”:
Each posture some kind of creature. Each minute
some kind of creature. Each creature is some sort
of time but not waiting (67).
In this particular poem the nature and performance of downward dog are juxtaposed with the damage done by Hurricane Katrina; like a good teacher, Smith urges the reader to explore the relationship:
…Or is the dog the stretch itself
and not the body that could bark and growl if only
it could see a city under water,
under a lid that the leaders don’t lift
until it’s too late. In the beginning,
keep the eyes open. Then you will know
what you are doing and where you go wrong–(ibid).
As readers move through the sequence of poem-poses they’re asked to consider their internal and external worlds, how they’re held in tension, how to reconcile them through awareness and effort. It’s fine if you’re wobbly because you don’t have to get it right the first time; in fact, it’s better if you don’t: as you read and reread each poem, new levels of connection and meaning rise to the surface, just as continued yoga practice will, inevitably, change you.
Though they work well on their own, the yoga poems take on greater depth and resonance when read in context. Each of the three previous sections of Nobody’s Jackknife is an invitation to experience life as Smith does: full-throttle, no apologies, level-headed and clear-sighted. Her emotional range is wide and honest, as if she not only would not, but could not lie to the reader.
“The Locust: A Foundational Narrative,” for example, which stands alone as part one, will knock the breath right out of your chest. It’s pretty clear just why the poem won a 2012 Orlando Award from A Room of One’s Own Foundation, but you’ll need to read it six more times to fully absorb its impact (and really appreciate the rest of the volume). Part two revolves around drinking, with most of the poems named after beverages (“Absinthe,” “Port,” “Rolling Rock Beer,” etc.). In this sequence, booze consumes you, but the final poem in the series, “First Communion,” with its shift towards sacramental consumption ends the section on a hopeful note:
Every tongue awaits the body.
Every body is a word.
Every word a possibility (37).
Section three has a gentler, more introspective tone and a somewhat experimental style; the imagery glides by like waves, lapping over the reader and lulling her into reflection. When linear narrative returns near the end of the sequence, it’s no surprise that it manifests in a few yoga poems, preludes to the deeper exploration in section four:
...now I was nothing but a body--good or bad-- and it was something they could draw-- it had mass; it was not filthy ("Camel Pose (Ustasana) 48).
I never feel like I’m doing the poets I review quite enough justice, but this time I’m telling you straight up: I am not doing this volume justice. Perhaps it’s not fair to you to review a work that cannot be neatly encapsulated in a few sound bites or fully appreciated on one reading. Then again, if you’ve made it this far into the essay without running away screaming, a stretch reading goal might be just what you’re after.
If I’ve guessed correctly, you can reserve your own library copy of Nobody’s Jackknife here. Are you in the mood to challenge yourself these days? Or do your summer reading plans err on the side of calm and chill? Leave us a comment and let us know where your comfort zone is.