The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: Louis Jenkins
I want to be a cloud. I’m taking some classes and have a really good instructor. I don’t want to be a threatening storm cloud, just one of those sunny summer
clouds. Not that I won’t have a dark side, of course. I’d like to be one of those big fat cumulus clouds that pass silently overhead on a beautiful day. A day so fine, in fact, that you might not even notice me, as I sailed over your town on my way somewhere else, but you’d feel good about it.
Like Wallace Stevens, Louis Jenkins’ poems sound a distinctive tone, self-effacing, down to earth, confiding. Instead of Stevens’ elegance, Jenkins is more the everyman pleased to have the reader with him, as if on their way to a ball game, beers in hand, conversation flitting here, there, arising in an easy way.
Mr. Jenkins, who was the planned subject of a Closer Look, died in 2019. We give thanks to Ann Jenkins, his widow, who has generously permitted and assisted this presentation of his work. He was the author of fourteen collections of poetry, most recently, Where Your House is Now: New and Selected Prose Poems (Nodin Press, 2019). A master of the prose poem, Mr. Jenkins received two Bush Foundation Fellowships and a Loft-McKnight fellowship, and in 2000, won the George Morrison Award. He frequently read his poetry on A Prairie Home Companion and was a featured poet at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in 1996 and at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, Aldeburgh, England, in 2007.
Beginning in 2008, Mr. Jenkins and Mark Rylance, Academy Award winning actor and former director of the Globe Theatre, London, began work on a stage production titled Nice Fish, based on Mr. Jenkins’ poems. The play premiered April 6, 2013, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and ran through May 18, 2013. A revised version of the play was performed at the American Repertory Theater in Boston (Jan-Feb 2016) where, thanks to Mark Rylance and Claire Van Kampen, Mr. Jenkins got a chance to attempt acting. It was a short-lived career. The play then moved to St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City (Feb-March 2016). In November 2016 the play opened at The Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End, and ran until February 12, 2017. In March 2017, Nice Fish was nominated for an Olivier award, Best New Comedy, 2017.
Charles Simic, former U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has had this to say about Louis Jenkins’ work:
To imagine what it means to be another human being is an act to love. These are poems written by a great lover of the world. Everything in it that stands alone, unobserved and luminous. Solitary people with their solitary destinies . . . if there's a native, archetypal American solitude, Louis Jenkins has given us its flavor
Selected poems from
Before You Know It: Prose Poems, 1970–2005 (Will o’ the Wisp Books, 2009)
North of the Cities (Will o’ the Wisp Books, 2007)
In the Sun Out of the Wind (Will o’ the Wisp Books, 2017)
All Tangled Up With the Living (Nineties Press, 1991)
One wearies of matters of substance, those weighty matters that one feels should be resolved, the dilemma of life on earth, the existence of extra-terrestrial life, the existence of God. Instead I recommend those moments that, seemingly without reason, stay with you for a lifetime: that red-haired girl on the shore brushing her teeth as we sailed away; the glimpse of a face; a bare shoulder turning in a doorway; moments like music, beauty and truth untroubled by meaning.
Wind In The Trees
You could live on the go like the wind with what seems like a purpose or at least a direction, but no home, reckless, pushy, with an attention deficit disorder, no more than a name, really. People will say, “That guy, you know . . . .” But if you stand still long enough you will be given an identity. You could live like the trees, parochial, rooted and restless, prone to hysteria. You could write letters to the editor. Living in the woods you get a lot of ideas about what God is up to, and what is going on in Washington. You’d have a family. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all close around you until, if you are lucky, they recede, one by one, into the peripheral haze of memory. Finally, some space, a clearing, a place to fall.
The Ukranian Easter Egg
It is quite different from the ordinary Ukrainian Easter Egg because of the pictures. On one side the sun is setting over Los Angeles and opposite, soldiers sitting in the muddy trenches. They look cold, smoking cigarettes. Here is the violin hidden in the soup kettle and there is a family of cats living in an abandoned gas station. There are so many pictures: the barbed wire and the road through the forest, the ducks, the radio, the yellow, smoky fires along the railroad track where the lovers are taking a walk. In the morning the elders of the village decide what must be done. A brave man must ride the fastest horse and deliver the egg. The journey is long, the roads are dangerous, the egg must be given only to the Czar.
Too Much Snow
Unlike the Eskimos we only have one word for snow but we have a lot of modifiers for that word. There is too much snow, which, unlike rain, does not immediately run off. It falls and stays for months. Someone wished for this snow. Someone got a deal, five cents on the dollar, and spent the entire family fortune. It’s the simple solution. It covers everything. We are never satisfied with the arrangement of the snow so we spend hours moving the snow from one place to another. Too much snow. I box it up and send it to family and friends. I send a big box to my cousin in California and one to Uncle Ralph in Texas. I send a small box to my mother. She writes, “Don’t send so much. I'm all alone now, I’ll never be able to use so much.” To you I send a single snowflake, beautiful, complex and delicate: different from all the others.
In scientific terms, sublimation is the direct conversion, under certain pressure and temperature conditions, of a solid into a gas, bypassing the liquid state. That’s why that patch of ice on the sidewalk gets a little smaller every day even though the temperature never gets above zero. Something similar happens whenever I deposit a check into my bank account. The funds never reach a liquid state. It’s the same when, thirty years later, you visit the house you lived in as a child. It’s much smaller than you remember. People are older and smaller. Everyone notices when something dramatic happens, a car crash, a tree falling over. Yet the subtle process of the sublime goes on continually, without much notice. Whatever was continues to be, in the form of molecules or atoms or something, no more available now than it was back then.
Because of my extraordinary correctness and sensitivity of late I have been elevated to the status of Temporary Minor Saint (secular). The position comes with a commendation praising my “uncharacteristic reticence tantamount to sagacity.” This means that my entire being is now suffused with a pale radiance somewhat like the light from a small fluorescent bulb, the light on a kitchen range perhaps, only not quite so bright, and that instead of walking I now float at an altitude of approximately three inches above the ground. I move about at a slow and stately speed as befits my new rank. I move to the left or right by inclining my head and upper body in the appropriate direction. It’s a less-than perfect condition. The light keeps my wife awake at night and though the added height is beneficial, moving about in a crowd presents difficulties. My forward speed seems to be fixed and, though slow, is quite tricky to stop. I lean back but momentum carries me forward like a boat. Suddenly turning my head can send me veering into the person next to me or into a wall. In order to remain in one place I’ve found it necessary to attach cords to my belt on one end and to various solid objects around the room on the other. These days I take my meals standing up, tethered like the Hindenburg.
Restaurant Overlooking Lake Superior
Late afternoon. Only a few old men at the bar, drinking and talking quietly. Waitresses for the evening shift begin to arrive. One stands for a moment at the far end of the dining room and looks out the window facing the lake. Snow is falling. The lake is completely obscured, still customers will ask for tables near the window. A few early diners begin to arrive, then others. Soon the room is filled with sounds—people talking, the rattle of dishes, the waitresses hurrying about. The lake is a great silence beneath all the noise. In their hurry the waitresses don’t look out the window. Yet they are in her service, silent a moment as they fill the glasses with water.
First the canoe,
400 rods over a hilly trail
then back for the packs
and the fishing poles
and one last look at the lake.
I wish it would always be like this.
Move up, go back,
pick everything up,
but the pines,
Once you stood, brooding, on the cliff overlooking the turbulent sea and the tumultuous clouds, the wind blowing your long hair and the tails of your frock coat. Your role was to make as much noise as possible. Sturm und Drang. But what about the beautiful Marguerite? Ah, forget her . . . the world so vast . . . . Now your concerns have diminished somewhat. The seas continue to rise, the wind blows, the war goes on. You consider the wing of a bird, a stalk of grass, the late glimmer on the stream surface, realizing that this may be the last time you see any of these things again in this peculiar light. Small things. Like that sliver in the very tip of your finger that despite your best efforts resists removal, so small it is almost invisible, yet when you touch anything, it hurts.
Of an Age
I’m getting to an age when, if I suddenly dropped dead, most people would not be overly surprised. And, no doubt, there are some who would welcome the news. I’m not particularly looking forward to it—death and whatever comes after. Which is not much by the look of it, decomposition and discorporation, when all the microorganisms that make up this conglomerate go their separate ways, thus ending one instance of corporate greed and mismanagement. But possibly some will linger, talk of an employee buyout, some wearing buttons that say “Solidarity Forever.” Most likely, there will be a few farewell parties with drinks and reminiscing, balloons, a joke sign saying, “Will the last to leave please turn out the lights?”
We have come now to the middle ages, our own private Middle Ages. It is a time of poverty and ignorance, the king's knights trampling the fields, destroying the crops, the peasant's hovel on fire, the pigs loose in the cabbage patch. And from behind the monastery walls, comes the sound of mournful singing. It is an age of faith, I suppose… So, what comes next? It seems to me that we must be going backwards. We long ago passed the Age of Enlightenment. It must be the Dark Ages yet to come. Already rooks have gathered in the oak tree and the long ships have hoisted their black sails to set forth on stormy seas that are the color of your eyes.
As you grow older you begin to enter the world of myth, you become less a fact and more a legend. The word becomes flesh and then gradually becomes word once more. You exist mainly as the stories people tell about you, full of inconsistencies, inaccuracies and downright lies. Anything else, what’s really happening, isn’t very interesting. But then, the stories most people tell aren’t that good either. You can see this. The lives of the people you know become harder and harder to believe.
The Language of Crows
A crow has discovered a scrap of roadkill on the blacktop and can't resist telling everyone in a loud voice. Immediately another crow arrives on the scene and the fight begins, cawing, flapping, and biting. Suddenly crows come flying in from every direction to enter the battle, skimming low over the treetops, all cawing loudly. Finally one of the crows makes off with the prize and flies a few hundred yards into the trees. But as soon as he stops the others are on him and the fight begins again. This scene is repeated time after time and each time the crows move farther away into the woods until their cawing has grown faint but remains undiminished in intensity. Then suddenly here they are again, full-force and in your face. Crows have a limited vocabulary, like someone who swears constantly, and communication seems to be a matter of emphasis and volume.
If you lie quietly in bed in the very early morning, in the half-light before time begins and listen carefully, the language of crows is easy to understand. “Here I am.” That’s really all there is to say and we say it again and again.
The violins have gone; the brass and woodwinds have gone. The orchestra has just finished a Paganini concerto. The basses and cellos lie on the floor or recline against chairs weary and unimpressed. They are like soldiers or prisoners on a ten-minute break and no one has any cigarettes. In a far corner, dressed in black, the drummer hunches over the tympani like a raven picking over a rabbit killed on the highway or like an old woman bending over a kettle brewing a poison to be painted on telephone poles to kill all the woodpeckers. He tunes and tests the drum. He puts his ear close. What does he hear? A distant storm? A herd of buffalo? Perhaps railroad crews working hard to lay down track a few miles ahead of a locomotive, the cars richly furnished with carpet, crystal and fine wine. The beautiful ladies and gentlemen come laughing and talking down the aisles to find their seats.
In the morning people go off to work all wrapped and bundled, through frozen doors, over cracking snow, huffing and puffing, each fueled by some simmering private indignation: low pay, something that was said at break…. The sun is far away on the southern horizon, a vague hope, more distant than the Caribbean. Eight below zero at eleven o'clock. The coffee boils and grows bitter. All afternoon, the same old thing, knucklebone of mastodon, stews on the stove. The radiator hisses at the long shadows that finally engulf the winter day. Lights come on for a time in the houses and go out one by one. We breathe deeply of the dark, we exhale great plumes and fronds that form on the windows, intricate icy blossoms open around us all night.
The First Day of Spring
When one is young everyday (as I remember it) is the first day of spring, all headlong and heedless. But, it turns out that life really is short and before you know it you are old and filled with sadness. Nothing to do now but watch the birds, scratch a few petroglyphs for someone to puzzle over years from now, to stay out of the way and leave the bulk of the wanton destruction to those who are younger. The human race will evolve or go extinct. So what? It happens all the time. You never see saber-toothed tigers anymore. I suppose I should be sorry about that, but to tell the truth I never liked them. All that screaming and prowling around outside the house at night—who needs it?
The Dutch Shoe
She was out of the water for years, since the early fifties maybe, over at the shipyard in Superior. You could see her from the highway, her masts down, sails stowed away. I loved that boat. All the time I was growing up I made plans to buy her someday. What shall I say happened? That my father bought her and put her in the back yard and kept garden tools in the hold? Or that my mother bought her and kept her in the china closet with the jade Buddha and the eight-day clock? That her brass gleams in the firelight, still dry and harmless? No. I bought the Dutch Shoe and sailed to Rangoon and Singapore and a hundred other places. I faced incredible dangers and hardships. I talk loud and drink all night. When I snore I wake bears in the forest and fish in the sea. Early mist rises from the water. Ice forms on the masts. My hair has turned white and my teeth have fallen out. I can't see a thing and I am sailing away.
The time has come to say goodbye, our plates empty except for our greasy napkins. Comrades, you on my left, balding, middle-aged guy with a ponytail, and you, Lefty, there on my right, with the pack of cigarettes rolled up in your t-shirt sleeve, though we barely spoke I feel our kinship. You were steadfast in passing the ketchup, the salt and pepper, no man could ask for better companions. Lunch is over, the cheeseburgers and fries, the Denver sandwich; the counter nearly empty. Now we must go our separate ways. Not a fond embrace, but perhaps a hearty handshake. No? Well then, farewell. It is unlikely I’ll pass this way again. Unlikely we will all meet again on this earth, to sit together beneath the neon and fluorescent calmly sipping our coffee, like the sages sipping their tea beneath the willow, sitting quietly, saying nothing.
The clouds sweep toward the western horizon as if they were nomads. Horses, men, children, dogs and goats and wives, cookpots and knives, banners and feathers, flags, ribbons, and hides, skulls borne on tall poles, all caught up in the whirl, the ecstasy of motion. They set off with a will, as if inspired. It is as if they served the great Kahn himself, a man of such presence that simply to behold his majesty would remove any doubt. To hear him speak banishes all hesitation. It is their manifest destiny! “Onward!” They would follow him across continents, across oceans if necessary… But the thoughtless clouds move only at the behest of the wind, who is no one at all.
The Body and the Soul
Long ago I was told that the body was the temple of the soul, a temporal dwelling for the eternal soul. I suppose the body could be thought of as a dwelling, it has plumbing and electricity, it groans and creaks in the night. I think in most cases, however, it’s more like a modest bungalow than a temple. And the house idea does not accommodate human mobility. Perhaps a motor home would be a better analogy. The body is the motor home of the soul where the soul sits behind the wheel and drives the body here and there, back and forth to work, off to the seashore or the Rocky Mountains. But the soul is a bad driver, so often distracted, dwelling on higher things, pondering, moving slowly up the pass, traffic backed up behind for miles. The soul gazes idly out the windows (eyes) paying no attention whatsoever to the road, and is in danger of sending the entire metaphor plunging over the precipice.
A Bear and His Money
Every fall before he goes to sleep a bear will put away five or six hundred dollars. Money he got from garbage cans, mostly. People throw away thousands of dollars every day, and around here a lot of it goes to bears. But what good is money to a bear? I mean, how many places are there that a bear can spend it? First you have to locate the bear's den, in fall after the leaves are down. Back on one of the old logging roads you’ll find a tall pine or spruce covered with scratch marks, the bear runes, which translate to something like “Keep out. That means you!” You can rest assured that the bear and his money are nearby, in a cave or in a space dug out under some big tree roots. Though sometimes the young males just flop down on the ground. You have to be careful. When you return in winter, a long hike on snowshoes, the bear will be sound asleep… In a month or two he'll wake, groggy, out of sorts, ready to bite something, ready to rip something to shreds… but by then you’ll be long gone, back in town, spending like a drunken sailor.
The Back Country
When you are in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful, policeman, priest, etc. Driving a tank is very impressive, or a car with official lettering on the side. If that isn't to your taste, you could join the revolution, wear an armband, carry a homemade flag tied to a broom handle, or a placard bearing an incendiary slogan. At the very least you should wear a suit and carry a briefcase and a cell phone, or wear a team jacket and a baseball cap and carry a cell phone. If you go into the woods, the back country, someplace past all human habitation, it is a good idea to wear orange and carry a gun, or, depending on the season, carry a fishing pole, or a camera with a big lens. Otherwise, it might appear that you have no idea what you are doing, that you are merely wandering the earth, no particular reason for being here, no particular place to go.
One of the good things about getting older is that no one asks anymore “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Or later on, “What do you do?” Questions for which I never had a good answer. Nowadays everyone assumes I’m retired, and that I have no ambition whatsoever. It isn’t true. It is true that it’s too late for me to become an Olympic champion swimmer or a lumberjack, but my ambitions are on higher things. I want to be a cloud. I’m taking some classes and have a really good instructor. I don’t want to be a threatening storm cloud, just one of those sunny summer clouds. Not that I won’t have a dark side, of course. I’d like to be one of those big fat cumulus clouds that pass silently overhead on a beautiful day. A day so fine, in fact, that you might not even notice me, as I sailed over your town on my way somewhere else, but you’d feel good about it.
A Sense of Direction
I hope no one reads anything I’ve written with the expectation of finding any meaning or direction. I have no sense of direction whatsoever. Yet occasionally, as I walk along in my private fog, someone will stop—and probably saying to himself, “Here’s a guy who’s obviously been around here for a hundred years”—ask how to get from wherever we are, to say—the Mariner Mall or the Saratoga. So I oblige this person with detailed instructions accompanied by elaborate gestures, pointing, and maps drawn in the air. We part mutually gratified, each feeling a sense of accomplishment. Later I realize that my account had fatal flaws, and I imagine the lost soul saying, “What an idiot!” or “What a liar.” Nevertheless, there are a lot of books out there, and a few of them actually contain accurate information. But these books all have the same limitation: they were written for the living. One is only alive for a short while and dead for a very long time. Yet, as far as I know, no one has written anything that’s of any use to the dead.
Copyright 2006-2012 by Cook Communication