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)