Perspective and Time
Dr. Kerry Sherin Wright
introduction for a by Lisa Jarnot at the Kelly Writers House, 10 April 2003
Lisa Jarnot is a poet, a biographer, and a memoirist. In the late 1980's Jarnot studied with Robert Creeley at SUNY Buffalo, where she first encountered the work of Robert Duncan. Since 1997 she has been working on a biography of Duncan which will be published by University of California Press in 2004. Jarnot is also the author of several chapbooks and two books of poetry, Some Other Kind of Mission, and most recently, Ring of Fire.
At least thirty of the poems in Ring of Fire are structured around the phrase "I am." Yet these anaphoric/epanaphoric poems are hardly conventional lyrics. Background and foreground, inside and outside, animal/vegetable/mineral, human/other than human, fire/matter/memory, I and you and they - all of these categories of distinction and more intersect and switch places throughout the poems.
The poems in Ring of Fire are not the first poems by Jarnot to tinker with the reader's sense of perspective and time. Some Other Kind of Mission plays with page space and typeface in such a way that the "texts" of many of the poems are actually a number of intertwining texts, words combined with other visual information that draw the reader's attention towards the act of composition without always conjuring a particular consciousness or organizing intention.
Jarnot's poems are very funny - funny the way that impossible things are funny: impossible combinations of words, impossible causal relationships, impossible rewriting of all of the wasteful, destructive history of men, guns, scientific thought, etc. in puns, in playful wordplay. The title of Some Other Kind of Mission comes from the poem "Two: Messerschmidts are also on the Highway next to Paris." This is Paris as in the lover of Helen, and the handwritten words that surround the typefaced text like numbers on a clock read: "Give Helen back (motherfuckers-"
Among other things, the book as a whole reclaims a sense of the classics in which the plot of war for love is diminished and other ancient truths re-emerge.
The poems in Ring of Fire likewise convey a sense of ancient history. This is a history that gorgeously trumps the present, mostly by being ever-present in it. Jarnot's poems show how we have recorded ourselves over time, how we have come to know and imagine ourselves. There is a sense in these poems of the transitoriness of self, of the ways that the self is imagined and reimagined. Any statement "I am" is temporal and beautifully ephemeral.
Jarnot's poems are filled with animals: cows, birds, tigers, possums, aardvarks, squirrels, spiders, fish, pigs, lizards, mollusks, lions, dogs.
These animals are words that the poet loves to say.
Jarnot's poems are also full of allusive echoes of Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Christopher Smart, Frank O'Hara, James Joyce, Robert Duncan, H.D., Marlon Brando, Thuycidides, and Walt Whitman. Jarnot's poems are full of the sights and sounds of waterfront commerce, California weather, New York City traffic and cheap pizza.
In "Biography and Autobiography" Jarnot describes her sense of her self thus: "What I learned to do early in life, as a survival mechanism of sorts, was to invent a self, or a composite of selves, as if my own life was formed out of a distant memory of who all the other versions of me had been throughout the history of my kind . What I had intuited even at that point was that one's identity existed as one's invention, and that as a creative person, one's identification and explanation of the self might always be in flux, like the whole of the universe is in flux, existing as a place of multiple possibilities, formed around one's attentions to the message arriving from the outside."
It's my sense that Lisa Jarnot's ring of fire extends this insight out to the history of humankind in general. There is a kind of expansive autobiography of human beings in all of their relations to animals, past selves, historical data and patterns of thought. What new ways of being can we imagine in language? To me, it is this question that animates Lisa Jarnot's beautiful work.