General 10-19-2004

Book Review: “Sea Smoke” by Louis Jenkins

Louis Jenkins will read from his work on Saturday, October 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Somers Lounge at St. Scholastica College in Duluth.

Sea Smoke, prose poems by Louis Jenkins
Holy Cow Press, $13.95

Louis Jenkins’ work is, as it should be, indescribable. But it does have these characteristics, among others: funny, dark, rich, daily, irreplaceable. I’d like to quote from it—the pieces are delicious like those newspaper stories that you can’t help reading aloud at the breakfast table. But it’s almost impossible to excerpt bits from any given poem. The charm of each depends on its every detail.

Jenkins has published a number of books, now, each new volume enfolding some of the best parts of the old ones, sort of like Whitman did with Leaves of Grass, the work acquiring a new corpus with each new book. This most recent book, then, by rights should be his best one, and it is. Some pieces here you’ll want to walk around all day with, slowly absorbing the flavor of their complex emotional layering; others are immediate, flashes of humor and darkness that make you push on to the next piece, hoping for more of the same.

The Jenkins persona becomes key to a full reading of the work. He weaves a self just visible in these works, a man who is reluctant to write, lazy, maybe, or just not wanting the trouble; a man who takes pleasure in many things but is always a little disappointed with them; he’s a walker, a daydreamer, someone who wants something for nothing but understands that that never happens.( Still, maybe just this once. . . ) His allegiance is to the daily, the paired clutter and emptiness that adorn lives lived in this time.

This persona of the ordinary man is true enough, perhaps, but it plays out over a nearly invisible backdrop of broad reading, of the world of poetry, ancient and extensive, seldom invoked or acknowledged in this work but there, like a resonator. The ordinary man who writes these things is a poet, after all, with a poet’s rangy memory and vast resources, though these are disclaimed, not any public aspect of the work. Without them, though, and without the darkness in the seams of these works, they’d be all Billy Collins wry warmth, a far more trivial affair. With the addition of this resonator, and with hints of an expectation or a longing that is both huge and in ruins, the work acquires a force and importance that it would not otherwise have.

The other presence in the poems, besides the persona of the author and the humor that often arises from it, is the presence of the land and water that is a constant part of the author’s daily life (he lives in Duluth, where Lake Superior is in constant view, and he often walks in the forests that surround the city). Far from rhapsodizing about these, though—an act that’s deliciously parodied in a piece called “Autumn Leaves”—the author seems to find the land a burdensome presence, something unassimilable, inhuman, an almost wearying force that exerts its strength but offers no meaning or return other than the fact of its shimmering presence. Which is off to the side of the human, not really relevant to language. The presence of the land is a kind of challenge, a call to live up to something, something irrelevant to life as we live it.

I can’t quote bits of these poems—there’d be no point—but I’ll put in one whole one: “A Happy Song.”

We know that birds’ singing has to do with territory and breeding rights. Male birds sing to attract females and warn away other males. These songs include threat and intimidation, and perhaps, in the more complicated songs, the insinuation of legal action. It’s the grim business of earning a living in a grim world. Each song has its own subtle sound, the idiosyncracies of its singer. It turns out, though, that the females don’t really value innovation and invention and generally mate with males that sing the most ordinary, traditional tune. There is always, though, some poor sap that doesn’t get it, sitting alone on his branch practicing and polishing his peculiar version until it flows as smoothly as water through the streambed, a happy song that fills us with joy on this first warm day of the year.