A review of Jen Currin's 'School'
I bought Jen Currin’s School at Seattle’s beloved Open Books: A Poem Emporium. A friend encouraged me to get the collection, so I did.
The epigraph for School is a Lao Tzu quote: “I confess that there is nothing to teach” (5). I found myself nodding and saying out loud, “because it’s all learning.” Still, this is neither a didactic book nor a moralistic instructional. It is too nonlinear to be either. Yet poems like “A Week of Silence,” “Friendships (Unlikely),” “Fragmented Lesson Plan[s],” “Imperfect Teachers,” “Possibilities of Zen” allow us to look more deeply at teaching, what’s taught, and various different kinds of learning.
For me, School is about the ways in which life elucidates the connection (or lack thereof) between human beings, the balance between vulnerability and drawing lines, and the importance of staying present and embracing change. As compelling as what Currin’s saying is how she says it. Her work vibrates in what I call the sensual infrastructure: a logic of the senses that takes up residence in intuition’s heart-mind circuitry. This is not a book raw with emotion. Feeling is processed in a manner of speaking — through intimate distances and analytical but tender observations. These contradictions often occupy the same breath: intimate but cool, sharply intelligent but compassionate. And this is one of the things I deeply admire about School.
The first poem, “The Conditions,” lays out what I presume to be the conditions of teaching and learning and not simply a learning of standard school subjects. In her poem “Increasingly,” Currin writes: “We want all want someone to release us. / It’s too painful / in this cage” (13). Currin places us all in the same frame, in which where “we” want to learn how to better negotiate suffering. Another poem states: “Other people are not just relationships” (11). I understand this to mean that other people have lives outside of their relationship to us. An other’s context determines her past, present, and future learning and a view of the world entirely her own. Later in the poem, the speaker explains: “Someone is leaving; someone is left. / Not the end of the world, just the end of a world” (11). The piece implies a maturing conception of loss. It’s just the end of a world.
The speaker of one of my favorite poems, “A Whole Wind,” contemplates an old self:
Tribes/tribal/hive-mind: the old way of loving.
A relentless tallying, a keeping track —
& calling this relationship. (46)
I first interpreted Currin’s first line as negative , especially in relation to the lines that follow. I thought about “the old way of loving” as a tribe mentality that might lead to compromised boundaries. Then I began to read the tribal or hive-mind more as an evocation of interconnectedness — an “old way of loving” outside of the new way set in a violent system entrenched in capitalism and opportunistic self-involvement. The “relentless tallying” and tracking by contrast is a tit-for-tat way of relating to other human beings and, according to the poem, not ideal.
Here and throughout the book, Currin beautifully explores a balance between vulnerability and setting boundaries. One of the ways in which she engages that dance is through her speaker’s keen observations. In “The Unfamiliar Gloves,” Currin writes, “It was so long go, when breakfast was coffee, cigarettes, & fatigue” (69). Observation is not numbed like “so long ago.” There is an ability to be in the world more authentically, more openly.
“What would it take?” Currin writes: “We could all be suddenly honest. / We could all surprise. / That careful other silence” (14). There are different kind of silences alluded to here. There is a silence of oppression rather than a productive silence of meditation. Which silence is being surprised? I think it is the silence of oppression — a silence “careful” and guarded and stifling.
Later in the book, Currin writes: “The learning is in trying. / I’ve lifted the sky from my back” (84). To be able to learn, one must make the attempts. And those attempts are at once new burdens and flight. “Learning is not enough friend. / Now we must begin to practice. / We must do it differently this time” (99). It is not only learning that is important but also putting what’s learned into practice.
In terms of formal invention, there are these leaps in meaning between lines and stanzas. Actually less like leaps, these are more like long, drawn-out es curves in the highway. Those bends between lines produce gaps in meaning that the reader must traverse. And those spaces beautifully render or embody the difficulty of learning (or being open to learning), the (in)ability for language to connect us, the fragility of relationships, and a life always in flux.
To illustrate, below is Currin’s “The Conditions,” along with my notes responding line by line. This is a beautiful poem; appreciate it once or twice without my italicized notes.
Other people are not just relationships.
It’s not all about you.
It’s morning, and the sun is setting.
Time goes quickly.
Maybe you made the librarian look bad.
Maybe you did something wrong that made that person behave poorly to you.
Clean the dust from your shrine.
Keep altars present.
‘Cheerfully accept these conditions, determined by your past lives.’
Karma, this is spiritual language.
My plants suffer in the winter.
So say we all. We have things in common.
Maybe they keep the café door open so the customers will get cold
and buy more coffee or leave.
Theorizing the mundane.
We have all tried to keep someone/something alive.
We have that in common too. And survival.
Someone is leaving; someone is left.
Always the departures.
Not the end of the world, just the end of a world.
Less dramatic and timely.
I spent ten minutes crouched in a bookroom with my students, listening to the computerized
‘armed assailant’ warning play over and over
Here is training for potential violence.
After that, I was less afraid
What makes you less afraid?
We are both changing, and we can’t change that.
Change is unavoidable.
What are you are washing is just a body.
Just a shell (Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary).
What I am mourning is just this.
Mourning this shell, fragile and transitory.
Before we were born, you asked me.
You asked me and I said yes.
In this poem, and in School, I often have the feeling that I am moving through some liminal sphere. In that zone, Currin manages to hold many things on a page: teaching and learning, mind and body, strength and fragility. It’s in that twilight space, in the space where we begin to wake and learn, Currin’s book schools us.
I woke up so slowly, friend. It was like
midnight had given me
pictures of all the answers
& now I had to sort through them. (59)
March 13, 2013
Dear Diane Wald,
Two days ago I received a large box in the mail. It looked as if it had been bounced around in a washing machine for several days. Two corners were crushed. It survived the journey from Pennsylvania to Connecticut thanks to yards of clear packing tape wrapped around it. There were thirty-five books of poetry inside, one of them yours.
It will come as no surprise that I had never heard your name before reading Wonderbender, poetry publishing being as prolific and diffuse as it is. When I first started writing, I could name most of the poetry presses and many of their authors. Now it’s difficult to figure out how many are publishing in certain parts of Brooklyn.
But I am always interested in connections, degrees of separation. I was curious to see how many degrees there were between us. I flipped to the back cover to see who’d written the blurbs. I had never heard of Patrick Lawler, Laurie Sheck, or John Skoyles. Perhaps there were more than I thought.
I had heard of 1913 Press, though. In fact, just last weekend I attended a performance at AWP in Boston celebrating the tenth anniversary of 1913. I went to see my old professor and friend Charles Bernstein read but arrived late and missed his reading. I sat in the back row next to Peter Gizzi. Do you know Peter? He lives in Massachusetts, too.
I did catch the end of a performance by Black Took Collective. They wore paper Justin Bieber masks and danced around the room.
I read the whole book in three sittings on consecutive nights.
The first night, Monday, I read on the couch while listening to BBC Three. We had just watched Roberto Rossellini’s India Matri Bhumi. They were playing Chopin. I read up to the poem called “Ptarmigan.” A ptarmigan is a medium-sized game bird.
The second night we watched Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, starring Daniel Craig. My wife says Daniel Craig is “simian.” I remember learning that word in a medieval lit class. I listened to BBC Three again afterwards, but I don’t remember what they played. I got as far as the poem “Prussian Blue” before going to bed.
Last night we watched Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, with its bloodred sets and spiteful sisters. On BBC Three they played dreamy early twentieth-century music, Debussy or something like that. I am not much of a classical music buff, though I find myself listening to it more often as I approach middle age.
One thing I rarely do is write in my books. I hate having the pages all marked up because I am afraid I will read them again and get angry at myself for having vandalized the site of my encounter. But since I need to remember things in order to write about them, I have taken notes on the cover page of Wonderbender.
I looked up the words “bollixed” and “veridical” on my phone. To “bollix” is to throw into confusion. I sort of knew what “veridical” meant, but I needed to double-check. I kept thinking “vertical,” then I was thinking “green” as in “vert,” and then I looked it up, and it means “truthful” or “veracious.”
Later that night
Writing this letter, I am reminded of what it was like to be interrupted writing physical letters back in the days before email. I wrote lots of them as a teenager and into my twenties. My letter-writing had ceased almost completely by the time I turned thirty.
I used to feel slightly guilty about returning to a letter after an interruption. For some reason, I thought that the veridicality of my epistolary self depended on a kind of temporal continuity which when broken, for instance by the need to go to work in the morning, required an explanation. To continue an interrupted paragraph without alerting the reader felt like lying.
Growing up Catholic will do that to you.
Your bio says you were born (like William Carlos Williams) in Paterson, NJ, then moved to Massachusetts in 1972. I keep thinking about that formulation. It masks your age. I tried to figure how old you were when you left New Jersey. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. My brother was born in 1972.
Tonight we watched an upsetting documentary called Five Broken Cameras. It’s about a Palestinian village being encroached upon by Israeli settlers. I don’t watch many political documentaries. They disturb me so much, I feel the need to disturb other people by describing them.
On my last night in Boston, I rode to Jamaica Plain in a cab with a poet, a translator, and an artist. (There’s the beginning of a joke in there somewhere.) We arrived in time to catch the last five minutes of a poetry reading in an art gallery. I didn’t really want to go, but my friend visiting from England insisted. I wanted to see him, so I followed.
After the reading we went to a bar down the street. We drank and talked about Italian films until my eyes began to fill with sleep. I said my goodbyes and asked how to get back to my hotel. The translator, who lives in the neighborhood, told me to walk straight up the street until I ran into the Forest Hills station on the Orange Line.
I walked a few blocks in the cold until I arrived at a lighted shelter with a train map. I saw the tracks you mentioned embedded in the asphalt, the rails snaking off in several disorienting directions. I wandered bollixed in the dark until I realized that the station was half a block away and the train ran underground.
There were a few other things I wanted to talk to you about. The Infant of Prague. The coelacanth. The conversation I had with an AT&T customer service representative in India named Grace. I’ve probably said too much already. I am still not sure what “Wonderbender” means, but I like the way it sounds.
It occurs to me that god made the earth in six days with a kinetic force so unimaginable it knit streams of life together in somatic sentences that make too much sense to see in words. In an alternate version of the story of creation from the Kabbalah, sparks of light become language when they reach the earth after falling through space. What’s the connection between language and energy? Our regular, everyday language holds great potential for multiple meanings but is utilized mostly for description. However, when the full light of a word is ignited with other words that have the power to trigger its energy, rather than merely a fraction of its function, you get life, which is contained in discrete units, like books.
How time passes is a negotiation that most of us collectively accept. As (made) begins, Cara Benson announces markers in larger letters that approach the margins. Inside the book, she\’s made a mirror for the natural world, then uses sentences to speed it up so we can see it. Growth is then more apparent, the colors filling with light. She notices what occurs and how it finds its way into the book: “it’s resolve, plain and simple.” But the pace at which the book progresses then extends into the industrial on our timeline, “[h]ighways shared anonymously, fatally.” To be reading inside this, as a “vehicle consuming,” is to be in the present moment. The world makes its sharp stops on the page in staccato pictures.
“Sticky coins, shredded tissues, lots of lint, keys, paperclips, frayed grocery lists, probably buttons.”
In that order.
“This is happening, sure as your bankcard.”
Inside each sentence is a kinetic achievement
like matter finally figuring out motion
“the unpleasant and uncomfortable fact of matter.”
read books that make me think
about what’s on the page
and other things.
What that does to
Excuse my language but this poem seems to be copulating
right in front of all of us, as if it were fun and not one
of the myriad disgusting fleshy and juicy activities
we choose to discard in the present moment. Instead,
do we go straight for the straight and narrow?
All language would do best to be incorporated as demonstrative of its fuller function, a reverse
You learned that words can be rented out like large rooms for conferences.
The act of forming a legal corporation; an association
of individuals, created by law, having an authority
to exist with power with distinct liabilities
from its members
any group of persons united in one body
(a book as an act of rebellion)
April 22, 2013
Dear Danielle Pafunda,
After reading the first few “Mommy” poems in Manhater, I put the book down. Partly, this was because they made me feel creepy, but mostly it was because I felt compelled to look you up on Facebook. I am not sure what I wanted to find out that wasn’t written in your bio, but I looked you up anyway.
I was surprised to discover that we were not already “friends.” We share 359 friends in common, as it turns out. I was happy to see from your photos that you have kids. That made the “Mommy” poems seem less creepy. If I didn’t have a daughter myself, the poems probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much. They triggered my protective instinct. I wanted to protect my daughter from “Mommy.”
I saw photos of you at a wedding, photos of you dancing, photos of you playing miniature golf. I saw a photo of you showing off a bright red scrape on your neck. I wondered if it was real. You didn’t look like you were in pain. In another photo, you’d painted your face to look like death.
Anyhow, I returned to Manhater last night. I was happy to get away from the computer, frankly, as the whole Internet had been lit up with news of the capture of the Boston Marathon bomber, and I needed an escape. I read all three sections in one sitting. The feeling of creepiness never went away.
After the creepiness of “Mommy,” there was the creepiness of worms and illness and death. I started wondering about the illness. I had noted something about disability in one of your online bios. I did not go back to the Internet right away to find out what the connection might have been. Instead, I concocted a truly creepy narrative in my head.
It went something like this: the speaker has contracted a lethal sexually transmitted disease. She has contracted this disease from a man. It is permanent and fatal and ugly. She is very angry. She wants revenge. When she gets horny, she finds a man to fuck, knowing their intercourse will kill him. This briefly satisfies her until the sexual urge returns. She must kill again.
She’s a manhater.
Did you ever see the movie Liquid Sky? I saw it once in a crappy VHS version. It has never come out on DVD as far as I know. It takes place mostly at a new wave club in New York in the early eighties. An alien comes to earth and lures men from the club back to her apartment, where they fuck. Her orgasm is so intense that it kills every man she touches.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you suffer not from a lethal, alien STD, but from fibromyalgia. I looked that up, too. It sounds painful. I am sorry you have to live with it.
Having written this, I am tempted to “friend” you on Facebook. Do you think that would be too creepy now that I have stalked your profile and imagined you as a disease-spreading alien out to destroy the male sex of the species? I guess it’s no creepier than the fact that you and I and everyone else have all thrown over our privacy to Mark Zuckerberg.
He’s kind of creepy, too, come to think of it.
Pafunda's 'Natural History Rape Museum'
(Italics are Pafunda’s)
Here is the tug of it, the long sweep down: You get this from binary systems agreed upon
arrived. Where is
If you have
brought it, if you
can carry it: Then proceed.
Close down your ears: she says
things, things we can’t hold.
Do you have your rage? This room is a housing. Here is a “vagina.” She takes it up and here “fuckwad,” you can hold it. It’s soft. Here the flap reads: My dear, my doughy dewy doe-eyed dimple, / you mustn’t attempt to think while you sphinx.
Do you see a kindling? Why did you come here except to gawk? Look above you, a halo / to still your rove mag eye. Taken won’t you? / With his obliging fig paw?
Room of Disturbing Installations:
Mount her atop. From her mouth drips the pull-chain. Pull it, and out pops the wolf’s
head, bare in some spots, mange-ridden, rid of teeth, one eye vacant and the other eye
Keep together, the next room horrors, do you horror?
You can look away. It won’t change anything. Do you want to change anything? It would
mean you can hear what this means: What part of her body is the instigator willing to
Let’s perform her. Let us install. Let us view the corpus.
They used to exist. These things. We destroyed them. Here you can view them.
Rape Museum: Here’s her wrapper, a plastic casket. / A
blue box zoned, its scab handles wagging.
Video Installation: 3–6 minutes, 35mm film. Endless loop. Pornography is the medium by which we excavate girls. Here this holds them for viewing. Everything you need to know is here: The darling punishment. A graph grown boot knife / in the back of the neck. In the sorry cleft. A boot / in the neck, a blue-fisted kisser. A weft slug, a slit / knit kills prone. The punishment was well deserved.
Here is what you should repeat to yourself when viewing: She seems to be enjoying it. She seems to be asking for the punishment. Therefore nothing is wrong. Pay no heed to any other thoughts you may have. Repetitive viewing will help your condition.
I relic pain, I treat my skullcap, and fan out my beard.
Imagine the goodness of the good girl. A work of art.
fantasy is believing. believing a word. holds the world. holds the word, a world wrought here. in a dual system where one is favored, the other disassembles, dissolves. call her whatever you want. His files are on display in the Natural History Rape Museum. none of this is to say. there is so much rape that the displays rotate. come again. there is so much rape, everyone is doing it. amateur and professional. movements and revolutions of rape. there is so much rape. come again. the installations change. there is rape in the basement where no one is allowed. we will bring it up for viewing. come again. this history is never ending. the show runs forever. comeagain.