Tuesday, April 03, 2007

(Photo by Larry Keenan)

I’ll wager that I knew who Hettie Jones was as an editor, and as a presence on the New York City poetry scene, before I was 20 years old. So I find myself amazed to admit that it has actually taken me now 40 years to read a book of her poetry, the quite lively Doing 70, published by the redoubtable Hanging Loose Press. It’s like discovering a whole new New American poet. And with my roots and interests as a poet, that’s a considerable gift.

It’s not like the emergence not so long ago of Landis Everson, who was a marginal enough member of the Berkeley renaissance a half century back, but who has returned now in his later years as more postmodern writer, full of subtle shadings nobody would even have noticed back in the early 1950s. Nor is it like the big belated book, A Tall, Serious Girl by George Stanley, a long overdue selected poems by a major writer of the Spicer circle who was largely out-of-print in the U.S. after having moved to Canada some 40 years ago. No, Hettie Jones is writing what are patently New American poems today almost in the same way that Michael McClure or Gary Snyder could be said to be doing the same, carrying forward that aesthetic from the 1950s to the present unbroken:

Here Is

a woman who know
what here is, through

long years of being

by a window that offers
others, there

here then is
this woman

ten thirty pm
on April seven

a struggling spring
in two thousand six

These are clean, simple poems, never trying too hard, but not written out of any nostalgia for the “beat scene” of Jones’ fabled youth either. When she says, in an interview given to Nancy Grace, that “I was much too logical and much too old fashioned and much too linear” to be a language poet, she’s not putting them or herself down, simply placing herself in the larger universe of literary possibilities. But this doesn’t mean that she’s not capable of complex statements, done with both great precision & notable grace, as in the poem “About Face”:

In Ghana, in August, in
the Golden Tulip’s
Demba Lounge

Nat Cole sings
“Merry Christmas”

as lone white men
on cell phones listen,
some with evident
nostalgia, to a black man
singing of home

Some remind me actually of the short lyrics of the late Carl Rakosi, ringing out changes, that, while completely predictable, can be quite satisfying simply for the precision involved, as in “Shades”:

black for the season
blue for oh how I need

this gray afternoon
when the drummer at the green
subway kiosk
red hot

Many of the poems are explicit in their feminism – an attitude that I suspect would have made The Boys of 1955 & thereabouts more than a little anxious & perhaps even dismissive – but it isn’t the simplistic finger-wagging of a Denise Levertov that Jones is after (tho one could argue that that was needed some three dozen years ago). Rather, what one notes about its presence in Jones’ work is the absolute variety of possibilities that come up with this as a subtext, ranging from the utterly grim, such as a poem about a Turkish woman stoned to the edge of death for “having sex / or being raped, same shame” who hangs for three months before dying, or of a female soldier killed in one of Bush’s wars, to poems that are simply, or not so simply, celebrations.

One of the more interesting examples of this can be found in the title poem, a not-quite six page narrative of having one’s car break down on the way back from Boston¹, only to have the trucker from the AAA-plus card (which gets you towed back where you need to be, not just five miles to the nearest rip-off station) turn out to be an engaging boy (Jones guesses his age at 23) who’s been to New York City only a couple of times before. Of course Jones was doing 70 on the Mass Turnpike when her starter broke – and of course just turned seventy a few weeks before – so what ensues is a complete gender reversal of the dynamics I outlined awhile back in the Peter O’Toole flick Venus.

So this is a case of the New American poetry doing something, with a few notable exceptions, the New American poetry itself seldom did. And it’s a pleasure to see it, because it is so clearly not imitation anything.

I want to close with a poem of Jones’ that caught my eye, “Naming Hettie Slocum,” perhaps because the house right next to the monument to Joshua Slocum on Brier Island off the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia (where Slocum was born, tho he did much of his sailing from Olson’s Gloucester) belongs to Krishna’s cousin, Dan Hunt. Given that my own side of the family has its own sailing mythology (thanks to my maternal great grandfather telling everyone that his grandfather was Sir John Franklin, which was right only insofar as that was the grand-dad’s name, tho he was an illiterate fishmonger, not the arctic explorer), this seems too good a coincidence to let pass. But I don’t think this poem needs any further comment from me. Hettie Jones does just fine:

Hettie Slocum once went
halfway around the world and back
in a sailboat. Then she gave up
the nautical life for good
and took off to farm

leaving her husband, Captain Joshua,
the well-known navigator-storyteller,
to the heave and swell of that vast
and wily mother, the sea.

Hettie was a pretty seamstress,
twenty-four and fresh from Nova Scotia;
Slocum, a cousin, forty-two and lonely.
His first wife, love of his life, mother
of his sons, had died. It was 1886.

Hettie was game; she sewed Slocum’s sails
cruised with him and the boys
to Rio, bought a tall hat, survived
an epidemic. He wrote a book
about their adventures, called her

his wife, called her “brave enough to face
the worst storms” – but never once mentioned
her name. Let us then remember her: Hettie!

Hettie Slocum!

Now all is said and done.


¹ Carrying with her the correspondence, no less, of the late Helene Dorn, the literal purpose of this trip.