Reviewed October 1, 2015 by Jeff Hamilton.
Reading Jane Mead’s poems I’m conjured into thinking I have moved beyond the dictates of good writing, when an alarm goes off reminding me I'm not writing. Much of what I recall about good writing is modernist claptrap, Ezra Pound hectoring us with credos that have long since become habits, like ‘use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.’ Mead’s trick, the sensation she conjures, corresponds prevalently with a word from a text mentioned in several poems from her new book, Money Money Money | Water Water Water – no less than Magna Carta. The word, I saw, as I moved from Mead’s book to a text I only dimly remembered, is “amerced.” For example, from that historic document: “Earls and barons are not to be amerced save by their peers and only in accordance with the manner of their offence.” I don’t even know what “amerced” means, but the passage quoted, from the Carta’s near-middle, has something, I suspected, to do with our modern word, amortize, and from the OED I note it means, in its above, passive sense, to be at the mercy of one for a wage, a fine, a remuneration, or gift. To amerce, we (perhaps rarely) say, is to fee. By fiat (the Charter constitutes this, though its renewal is always lapsing) a debt would not be amortized through amercement above one’s tenancy, or feudal class. That is, if an Earl or baron died with a lien against debt owed to another below his class, the Crown would not enforce it. “Amerce” suggests an atmosphere Mead’s lexis (which, to be clear, doesn’t include “amerce”) develops around money, however, currents and currency are also on Mead’s mind: “We approach Magna Carta from six degrees | of separation, but we approach her.” (“We Approach Magna Carta”) Mead tropes our “six degrees of separation” from Kevin Bacon, of course, but the metonymic mis-naming here involves substituting “her” for a river that could be the Tuolumne, mentioned in the volume’s previous, and opening, poem, called, simply, “Money,” or could be the large charter of our claim on the biosphere. Or, and here’s a thought: “her” could be Tuolumne, and the money ruinous to the Tuolumne’s biosphere.
The Toulumne itself substitutes for all rivers toward which we never fail to step. Here is the large charter “We Approach Magna Carta” considers, as the contract King John offered his landholders was consideration, if one not always enforceable: “What greater claim?” the poem asks. (Just so, Hobbes found in these original compacts between King and property-holders the origins of the State.) Mead enacts in her reader an amerced situation with regard to her language, now, more than in any prior book by Jane Mead – this is her fifth, if we include the early chapbook A Truck Marked Flammable (1991) – the language of her Western, ancestral lands (she grew up in Maryland), including the grape vineyard she inherited from her father’s side of the family:
What monumental difficulty –
Turning law into democracy –
and then all the embedded shame.
Even the chapter on Culture Today –
that part written by some geezer
with secret ties to the monarchs.
Custom Today: sandy craters
in color, fallen walls.
[“We Approach Magna Carta”]
On the one hand, these stanzas seem an innocent enough set of abstractions, contrasting custom with culture, geezers with monarchs, property owning with tenancy. The slight parody indicated in the orthography of the “chapter” headings (their capitalization) suggests the innocence: these hyperbolic gestures are no big whoop. On the other hand, a Blakean irony always present in Mead’s work, prone, in an instant, to collapse and giganticize scale, has become “what monumental difficulty,” entailed in an effort to offer ways, or “customs” for reading Mead’s book. There are rich slippages in the tactics by which Jane Mead permits reading to become our being “big and small with language” (as a title late in the volume puts it); for now, at least, her authority holds its own in format: the book’s lyrics, while typically disjunctive, are brief, always at the mercy of the sequence they discretely join. Mead subtitles the volume “a trilogy.” Three sequences of twenty-odd lyrics structure the volume yet hardly constitute its architecture: On verso pages, a short, four-line poem anchors the print-area, or “field,” at its bottom-left margin, like an interior flipbook; on the recto, the poems proper conventionally stand. The play on scale tropes the discussion of tenancy. The first sequence takes its title, “That the Church of England Should be Free,” from Magna Carta, resuming a lexicon we recognize from earlier Mead volumes – The Lord and General Din of the World (1996) and The Useable Field (2008). The House of Poured-Out Waters (2001) – the title – suggests a piece of vernacular architecture in which rain water from roof-gutters runs off into troughs for upcycling. Just so, Mead’s verso four-liners in the new book upcycle the language at times heavy on the recto house. For example, a first line from one of these four-liners (in italics in the original) goes, “Complexity of thistle and desire” – this tripped one of those alarms I spoke of earlier: Pound warns, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol,” and “don’t say ‘dim lands of peace.’” Mead draws our attention away from the object to how over-invested in the object we are. These first lines Mead re-presents as titles of the gutter four-liners, upcycled by the table of contents, in which they shadow the titles of the lyrics proper. Mead’s style acknowledges that our gnostic tenancy in logos, or law, has not altogether been “turned-out,” or made into a public language. Her title, Money Money Money | Water Water Water , strikes a flint off this mineral fact. All the space, made through format, through inventions (an adventure) of disjuncture – ask her readers to complete something, at the same time as her narrator admits, “I could not my own fool life abandon.”
A word further about “the fool life.” Born in 1958, educated at Vassar, Syracuse and Iowa, Mead operates now a family farm in Napa and teaches in Drew’s low residency MFA program. She comes from a large family that joins two significant American clans – one purportedly (this was reported by Garland Allen’s biography of Mead’s great grandfather, the embryologist Thomas Hunt Morgan) reaches into the Morgan banking dynasty. The other are chemists. The mineral darkness “where the woods meet the cove” allows, in the gnostic texts (Thomas, e.g.), a psychic spark, or life. Mead’s meditation on such spelunking for a “natural object” ironically catalogues the organic within the scale of monstrosity:
Lithonate is some sort of lithium
and crawling is some sort of life.
I don’t know how they do it elsewhere
but here we all try to be awfully good
and still sometimes they lock us up.
Life made proper isn’t what you think.
What Whitman called democracy’s “material tissue” is what I’m always reading into lines such as these. Our culture includes, after all, a chemical industry that alloys the salt we call lithium carbonate [“lithonate”]. That salt is water-soluble, and lithium is used, for instance, in the treatment of bi-polar disorder. Sorry to bore the reader with passages from Wikipedia, but while I’m at it, let me mention my ignorance as to whether the chemical compound (“some sort of lithium”) is patented by Union Carbide, the chemical industry giant (now owned by Dow Chemical), however, routine on-line stalking turns up that Union Carbide was co-founded by Jane Whitaker Mead’s grandfather, Giles Whitaker Mead, one of a number of eminent scientists – on her mother’s side, their number includes that Noble laureate I just mentioned, Thomas Hunt Morgan – in the poet’s genealogical tree. The verso four-liner opposite these lines offers the following (in italics in the original) dramatic soliloquy:
The creation of want
The creation of debt
The creation of toxic ponds
If they wave wave back
I understand that I will be perceived to be psychologizing rather than “close reading” these lines. My point, vide Pound, is that she did it (she said “dim lands of peace”) and that they bear a lot of context, nor am I finished writing the large charter. Whitman’s material tissue in Mead’s “Cove” comes out sounding like family romance. Poetry is a material culture that keeps pointing toward language’s “spirit home,” as Mead calls the land around Lake Tahoe in a poem, “Fallen Leaf Lake,” dedicated to her grandfather. Mead’s grandfather sold his share in Union Carbide shortly before he died in 1937, just after another American poet (so let’s talk, too, about that large clan), Muriel Rukeyser, wrote a great poem, “Alloy,” about the American chemical “plant.” Here are its opening lines, written, I assume al fresca, at Hawk’s Nest, in Alloy, West Virginia (formerly “Boncar” – a coinage from “carbon”):
This is the most audacious landscape. The gangster’s
stance with his gun smoking and out is not so
vicious as this commercial field, its hill of glass.
Metallurgy and its damage is Rukeyser’s subject here. The landscape is “most audacious” for its beauty, of course, its remoteness, its unforgiving character (before the national highway system, the roads through it must have been all switchbacks), but also because in the late Twenties the Rinehart-Dennis Company (a subsidiary of Union Carbide) began hiring mostly negro workers up from the South to dig out the Tunnel flowing underneath Hawk’s Nest, and in the “dries” there, engineers found mountain rock that consisted of 90 to 98% silica, which could be alloyed at the company plant. Alloy metallurgy creates the “hill of glass” of which Rukeyser makes herself witness. The silicosis that resulted from this 1927–1933 mining operation ended in some score of deaths by the time the twenty-three year old Rukeyser arrived on the scene in 1936 – however, because the miner population of Gawley Bridge (the company town) was migrant negroes from the South, the resultant-death toll among workers who returned to the South may have been much larger – some have estimated, into the hundreds.
My fealty to this historical context should not be considered some moral mania like conscience but endeavors to acknowledge in Mead’s poems an amerced debt (and not just to Rukeyser), a spiritual burden that is always giving her fractured observations (“life made proper isn’t what you think”), her paradoxes (“we all try to be awfully good | -- and still sometimes they lock us up”), her avowals (“You will not go to your grave with ticks”), and her curses (“kiss my lily-white ass”) a dramatic force I find in few other American poems being written now, certainly few of those of a generically “confessional” character. Not too long ago I read a poetry volume by someone writing about the death of a brother at a very young age, in which, while the death itself was not narrated, the narrative point of view fabricated a “voice” that never got beyond the observational range of the age at which the loss occurred. A legitimate project, and at another point in literary history, one that would have been considered, whether pejoratively or not, “confessional.” (I think, for instance, of Christopher Davis’ terrific debut, The Tyrant of the Past and the Slave of the Future.) But there was nothing confessional here, because the narrative point of view didn’t allow for it; psyche is mind, minds develop, that’s a drama, and the fractured voice in this volume of poems bent toward an absolute innocence that is the child’s lexicon. The fractured style needed disjunction only to identify with the child’s loss, its woundedness. There was no other risk. I couldn’t get with it.
On the other hand, it always bothered me, when I was first reading Robert Lowell, that there was some Knowledge Base about American literary history needed to grasp the pathos in the drunk’s tight-rope walk of Lowellian enjambment. That metre may be missing from Jane Mead’s work, but the pathos is not. In the opening poem from House of Poured-Out Waters: “It would be easier | If I did not exist — || but I did..” The poem is titled, “To Break the Spell Is to Invite Chaos into the Universe:” “Earth or music? || The music as earth: just so: | The horizon beyond the horizon — .” Mead’s poetic compass, then, leads her not in circles, but toward a horizon of tragic speech that, however expressive it is of Lowellian sensitivity, family addiction, and disaster, rejects the urbane style in Lowell’s late, family poems. Lowellian urbanity, Robert Von Hallberg has remarked, operates to balance, or compose, a scene full of invidious social and intellectual discriminations; the stance freed Lowell to address his most contemporaneous readers on a shared field (The Psychoanalytic Era) of “authentic” details. Mead, however, writes georgics in a confessional mode. The metonymy remains authentic and it’s the range of lexical association, as we have just observed in Mead’s use of “lithonate,” that is in crisis. Miners crawl through toxic ponds and it’s some sort of life. Words precipitate the crisis: “Just | as blue is an illusion | for sky, just as the wind || takes the fog out, just | how we say it: doorless, | doorless, – then stay.” (“Tamoxifen”) The commitment here is to a material tissue indifferent to our ethos of stewardship, though not inured to a psychic spark.
Mead’s poems emerge, like those of so many Iowa-trained pastoralists, from crisis, and her first full-length volume, The Lord and General Din of the World, found its crisis modality in family and personal addiction. The crisis modality is subject to repetition and irony. Its principle genre is the crisis ode. Here, following from Whitman (the “Elemental Drifts”), the basic wager the poem sets is whether or not it will be possible for the next poem to be written. Many poets don’t get beyond this wager. It’s a tight spot quite opposed, then, to the basic production modality at Iowa, where the touchstone is William Carlos Williams’ “Only one answer: write carelessly so that nothing that is not green will survive” (from Paterson III). Money Money Money | Water Water Water finds in Napa georgic a horizon beyond this basic tension within the pastoral. But the cost, it would appear, is the amerced family debt of Mead’s subject matter in the eco-poem.
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Jeff Hamilton has recent poems in Zocalo Public Square, Natural Bridge, and december. His essays on Robert Duncan have appeared in Jacket, The Chicago Review, and [Re:] Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan [St. Martins]. He teaches writing at Washington University in St. Louis, and runs Observable Readings through the St. Louis Poetry Center.