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Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig
Louisiana State University Press ($17.95)
by Matthew Duffus
Jane Gentry is a poet of formidable strengths, able to delicately intertwine speaker and place with her close attention to detail, and to create a clear connection between the subject and nature. In “A Human House,” the opening poem in her second collection, these strengths are on ample display from the start:
is as real in the world
as water or air,
as the birds’ clear vowels
that rise through fading
light at the day’s end.
Many of Gentry’s poems take her native Kentucky as their setting and her family’s history—1870 to the present—as their subject. Even though such a personal approach could be limiting, Gentry’s awareness of her position in this order enriches her work, as in “The Reading Lamp.” Unable to remember the brand of the lamp, a gift to her grandfather for his 88th birthday, the speaker realizes that “I alone have lived to tell this / little story, and now I approach / the dark to which they’ve gone.” The lamp provides a “last hope” through its association with the departed, and though it “won’t yet yield its name,” the speaker takes consolation in its permanence.
Like the second-hand objects in “My Mother’s Room,” Gentry’s themes show the “polish / from loved hands before her own,” but her voice is so strong, her way of seeing so acute, that she draws in the reader—even in her most personal poems, like “To My Grandson, in the Womb, on Washington Heights,” where the speaker, lying in the Kentucky grass, thinks of her unborn grandson in New York:
I fear for you in that pell-mell
as never for my daughters. Someday
an Agamemnon might summon you to arms;
enemies may fix you in their crosshairs, you
without even bones to speak of!
Such fears are realized in “On the Eve of War with Iraq,” where the speaker juxtaposes her typical, mundane tasks—running errands, preparing to teach—with those of ordinary Iraqis, whose routines are freighted by the specter of war, and concludes, “Perhaps Heaven is earth / without the water of blood, / air without the song of breath.” Through subjects as diverse as Greek goddesses, post-9/11 New York, Iraq on the verge of war, and the details of her own personal history, Gentry confronts “how few of us are lucky enough to live / the life we’re prepared for.”
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006/2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006/2007