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Wednesday Shout Out
When I came across this book of poems, I was struck by its use of the surreal: “The password is still bird, folded wings unfurling against the damp sides of your mouth.” Jenny Browne crafts her language into imagery that gestures toward optical illusion, where the vehicle and the tenor can switch places without warning. Look closely and it’s exactly what it seems, and what it doesn’t seem. And in this book of curious metaphors, everything is subject to transformation: a troubled marriage, a bout of insomnia, the man who gives bad directions in downtown San Antonio.
In Some Pregnant Dreams
You must leave Africa today
or maybe it’s China, wherever
you carry a leaky burlap sack of eels
then watch them writhe fire-like
in the bus’s crowded aisle.
No shit. No suitcase. No sushi.
No warning when you’re let off
at the familiar high school to find
a standby ticket home. You forge
the signature fine but there’s a long
line outside the attendance office.
Listen up, people, I don’t have all day.
But you have all night. Deep in
the humid gymnasium, the dance team
can’t get their high kicks in line
and your first boyfriend crouches
under the bleachers nursing
a spotty beard. He looks up
and says you were a good lay.
Your weren’t. But you were seventeen.
You were good for anything, even lying
in the scratchy grass near the triple-jump-pit.
It’s still field day and you win a three-
legged race alone. Somewhere in the distance
your name crawls itself through the megaphone
and the drum major who is your mother who
is your grandmother who is wearing
a sky-blue wool hat explains that the sneezes,
second spine, webbed feet and bag of elbows
do-si-do-ing inside you, honey,
In poems with dreams anything goes, usually logic, and the symbols within are typically sexual in nature. So in this poem by the time we reach the boyfriend sitting beneath the bleachers as the dance team throws its legs up in the air, generating heat, the sack of eels don’t come across as eels anymore. And this is high school, hormone central, where sex education can be both theory and practice, where the story of a teenage pregnancy echoes through the halls of graduating classes past and present (hence the drum major mother/ grandmother).
The “bag of elbows” toward the end harkens back to the sperm-like “sack of eels,” except that by now a little critter has fertilized an egg and is slowly morphing into this frightening homunculus that has taken root inside the young woman’s walls. Frightening dreams, indeed.
And since everything has become real, it’s not difficult to discern that leaving Africa or China is probably referring to those dreaded high school research projects. And that going home with morning sickness is just the beginning of a lengthier, lonelier journey.
Browne’s poems are subtle but not silent, their pitch quietly escalating to an unsettling sound. And this book is like a “collection of wishbones/ rattling on/ the quietest shelf in the room.”
(From The Second Reason, published by the University of Tampa Press, 2007. Used with the permission of the author.)