The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by Moshe Dor on Rod Jellema


Incarnality, The Collected Poems by Rod Jellema. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. 241 pp.


Rod Jellema is a believer.  Not only because he regards himself as involved in "the Judeo-Christian belief in a lost Paradise."  But because his poetry has not lost faith in the future of mankind, its ability to build and rebuild our continuously evolving world.  This is not naïve poetry, based on shallow optimism, nor an attempt to ignore the dark and the evil that constitutes an integral part of human nature.  It's a poetry of creativity. 


In Jellema's view, the creation of the world did not end in the biblical Six Days of Creation.  Poetry, along with other branches of human endeavor, lends a hand to the constant effort of nurturing the Spark.  Jellema knows that it's always easier to destroy than construct.  Chaos is immensely alluring.  Especially to the arts.  But Jellema curbs the natural inclination to uproot.  Instead he digs his hands deep in the earth to focus on planting and cherishing the seedlings.   


Fortunately for himself as well as for his readers, Rod Jellema is a wise, sensitive, and highly aesthetic craftsman, skilled at evading the snares and pitfalls of clichés, which often lie in the trail of other "believing" poets.  This excellent poet, like the mythological Antaeus, derives his strength from contact with the soil—in his case, the very belief in humanism: nature (carnality) hallowed by inspiration (incarnality).  Incarnality means being rooted to this earth while at the same time experiencing the jubilation of the spiritual. 


In "Civilization," Jellema tells us about the archaeological excavation of the oldest playable musical instrument—a 9,000-year-old flute carved from the wing bone of a crane.  This is a true story, one that has even been published in a newspaper.  But it gives the poet an opportunity to explore his concept of continuous cultural progress, like a torch passed from generation to generation, its flickering light refusing to be quenched by the powers of Night:


Long before Greeks measured to mark

the frets on their lutes, dividing tight strings

by exactness of tones, long before that,


someone in China, probably a girl with time

and some need to walk alone near the sea,

lifted to lips the hollow wing bone of a crane


and blew through it, no thought of why,

mixing sky-air that lifts wings and sleeves

with unseen source of life they called breath.


Thus the opening, with its historical consciousness and tender humor.  And the poem rolls on to the end, expressing the philosophy and aesthetics of Jellema's  poetry—how that spark of our humanity bequeaths throughout endless epochs the heritage of civilization:


                                    . . . rising to meet

the vibrato of long breaths ringing out of


that hollow wing-bone, and the melding created

dialogue, Greek harmony, music, compassion,

a transcendence of selves, a republic.


Here is the motif of responsibility.  Other poets of independent spirit may be tempted to break ideological yokes in the name of safeguarding freedom of expression.  But in Jellema's view, this can release them from exploring what is sacred—the need to preserve the humanitarian values of Art.


In "The Runaway," we find humanism addressed in intimate terms: a recollection of  school days, and a sort of Huck Finn character called Herky.  While waiting for the computer screen to come on, memory takes over in the vapor of the imaginary engine, and introduces us to "Herky—runt  in rags and got-no-pa Herky / who died back then and none of us cared."  The sin of indifference to the past has not been, and can never be, erased from the individual soul—yes, Rod Jellema recognizes the existence of that "religious" component in the human psyche—because it is an inherent part of private responsibility, as important as collective responsibility.  The tragedy of Herky has amalgamated with the persona of the poet and demands atonement:


Herky has vanished into the steam

so I run and run for the train's departure,

catch the handrail and swing myself

aboard, riding the clicks alone through

the night, leaving town, leaving town

to live out Herky's life and my own.


The image of the train reoccurs in "A Sighting," which reveals clashing concepts—reality challenging the poetic surrealistic view, but none gaining the upper hand.  The two elements touch and enrich one another—while enabling us to enjoy the delicate moves of the poet's brush.  Allow me to indulge in quoting the complete text:


We watched this old gray boxcar lumber past

the crossing, the name Roscoe, Snyder, and Pacific

almost washed away—and hey, I said, look,

a first name and a last name and a sea,


but Gordon, who loved sighting trains even then,

with his last chance for a little luck fading fast,

slowly said his only poem ever


as he watched what he knew was there.

No, he said—eyes scanning the track

the way the train had gone—no, it's just

two little towns in Texas and a dream.


The realist stepping into the poet's dreamy plot and the boundaries becoming faint, no longer easy for marking. 


In his essay "Double Vision," which Rod Jellema uses as a preface to his collected poems, he says that "in Ireland they speak of 'thin places,' where only the mists divide this world from the Other."  The author of Incarnality is a citizen of both worlds, walking carefully, but with assurance, in the two realms that represent the essence of mankind. 


Jellema is an American poet, rooted in the American habitat.  "White sands under my feet rub and crunch / and whistle against themselves," he describes the landscape of Michigan where he was born and grew up and has been returning to.  Jellema also keeps faith with his Dutch—to be more precise, Friesian—origins.  Not in vain has he been translating poems from the Friesian dialect, re-soldering "the golden chain" (not knowing Yiddish I still borrow the famous image of the golden chain—cultural continuity—coined in that language) between him and his forefathers.  America is a country of immigrants who have given birth to a new nation, a melting pot out of which has emerged a country of enormous strength, one with a reservoir of pride, enthusiasm—and agony.  Jellema, the believer, extols the  "eighth day of creation" that passes all of this on to us so vividly.  At the same time he endows the concept of "Everyman" with his own brand of warm-hearted and graceful poetry of humanity unvanquished.


"I don't understand how the old lament / there is no new thing under the sun / can be true.  I see /  new things", writes our poet in "A Double Contention against the Scriptures."  Here Rod Jellema quotes the Hebrew Bible.  As one who writes in the Preacher of Ecclesiastes' revivified ancient language, I give Rod my humble imprimatur.  

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