I finally received in the mail today a volume of poetry by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) that I have been eagerly awaiting for weeks. The edition, entitled “Timely Issues” is published by Carcanet Press, which has also printed the other volume I own, her “Selected Poems.” Jennings was very successful with her poetry in her earlier years, publishing her work in various literary magazines and winning awards and prizes. But as her life progressed, she was mentally and physically fragile and suffered from breakdowns which caused her to be hospitalized. Her illnesses, her deep Catholic roots, and the difficult love affairs in which she engaged pervade her poems. I find her poetry simple, yet profound, quite lovely, and even soothing. I include here in my post three of my favorites from the Carcanet collections; they need no commentary or analysis as I think that would ruin my post—they stand better simply, on their own.
About These Things
About these things I always shall be dumb.
Some wear their silences as more than dress,
As more than skin deep. I bear mine like some
Scar that is hidden out of shamefulness.
I speak from depths I do not understand
Yet cannot find the words for this distress.
So much of power is put into my hand
When words come easily. I sense the way
People are charmed and pause; I seem to mend
Some hurt. Some healing seems to make them stay.
And yet within the power that I use
My wordless fears remain. Perhaps I say
In lucid Verse the terrors that confuse
In Conversation. Maybe I am dumb
Because if fears were spoken I would lose
The lovely languages I do not choose
More than the darkness from which they come.
Always as if for the first time we watch
The fireworks as if no one had ever
Done this before, made shapes, signs,
Cut diamonds in air, sent up stars
Nameless, imperious. And in the falling
Of fire, the spent rocket, there is a kind
Of nostalgia as normally only attaches
To things long known and lost. Such an absence,
Such emptiness of sky the fireworks leave
After their festival. We, fumbling
For words of love, remember the rockets,
The spinning wheels, the sudden diamonds,
And say with delight, ‘yes, like that, like that.’
Oh and the air is full of falling
Stars surrendered. We search for a sign.
My love, I hold you in imagination,
Either mine or yours,
And it is stronger than remembered passion.
It uses memory with all its force.
O the clocks go silent, time departs,
Now is forever here.
How delicate yet strong are our two hearts,
Mine beats for you now almost everywhere.
Only when my world is rent with storm,
Threatened by sadness or
Overcome by black words which can come
And threaten me with the inner, hideous war
Only then, I’ve lost you. O but fast
A little flash of sun,
A hurrying memory returns you blessed
And our great love is stalwartly at one.
In a wonderfully written and compelling article entitled “Clarify Me, Please, God of the Galaxies” Dana Gioia concludes about Jennings’s poetry, ” Her poems flash like meteors illuminating what it means to be human.”
What poetry is everyone else reading lately? I would love to have some new recommendations in the comments.