California. Jennifer Denrow. New York: Four Way Books, 2011. 84 pages. $15.95.
There’s a long tradition in poetry of psychological and emotional life taking on geographical elements—that is, the interior mirroring the exterior, and vice versa—and one that is specific to the borderland, the periphery, of California. Jennifer Denrow’s California continues this particular tradition, writing into the same space enlivened by poets like Robert Hass, Harryette Mullen, and Gary Snyder. Unlike these poets, however, Denrow is not writing from within the mental and physical territory of California: Hass’ eucalyptus, Mullen’s infusion of Spanish-language vocabulary, and Snyder’s desert campfires are nowhere to be found. Instead, Denrow writes toward California, imagining beaches, forests, Hollywood. This book conjures a utopia in both senses: an ουτοπος, or non-existent place—“If California didn’t exist, I’d still want to go there,” one speaker says, divorcing the landscape she has in mind from its referent in reality—as well as the homophonic ευτοπος, or “good place,” a heaven, a haven. Denrow’s narrator uses these notions of California as simultaneously imaginary and sanctuary to construct a new state of being, a new identity, one that can constantly be erased, rewritten, improved. For this speaker, nothing is more important than that search for identity, that migration to California.
The collection begins with a short proem, “How the Mind Works Still to be Sure,” a line from the Beckett play Spiel (Play). In this poem, the speaker’s world is dissolved by endless drawings of fields, which are nothing more than blank pieces of paper. Through repetition of the word “field” and its association with blankness, the mind, and the page, Denrow prepares the reader for the liminal experience of California: in order to accompany the speaker on this migration, the reader must likewise be willing to treat his life like the contents of the page, capable of being erased and rewritten.
“Forget your life. // Okay, I have.” The first lines of Act I, “California,” invite the suspension of disbelief, the recreation of the tabula rasa, necessary for the lines that follow to register emotionally. “When I’m in California I’ll go to the beach / and cry. All of the seagulls will crowd // around me and force my mouth open / with their wings,” Denrow writes, imagining a state populated with animals in which “no one can be alive.” This alternate reality, this heaven, is a kind of psychological sanctuary made physical: “I could become holy in California,” Denrow writes: “I could live in a small room with only a little light.” The narrator doesn’t ask much: she only needs a little freedom, a little unreality. The pursuit of this unreality is unavoidable, addictive. In a dialogue with her husband, the narrator says, “I push my finger into / his chin and cry: It feels like this, I say, / I need it this bad.” The need to undertake the journey, to explore the new identity, is painful.
Like “How the Mind Works Still to be Sure” and “California,” the second act begins with a call to forget what has gone before: “You put your thumb in front of your eye. / This is the world now” (“Things Reappear”). Act II, which is untitled, comprises a brief series of short poems that invoke the atmosphere of Hollywood, or at least the theatrical: understudies break character, directors move from room to room, the reader is told to assume the identities of police officers, clerks, trees, without actually becoming those things (“You think that the beginning / of being a tree must be so hard. Your arms / tire quickly,” from “Your Character”). The search for identity continues, this time framed by the stage.
Denrow offers an end to this searching, if not an actual endpoint, in the third and final act, “A Knee for a Life.” It opens with an epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, evoking the image of stone transitioning to flesh in the same way a marble block transforms, by the sculptor’s hand, into a statue. Again, the previous form is shed; a transition is made; the old identity is left behind in search of another. This section, a written correspondence between the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, explores the intricacies of identity even further than the previous two: is an exchange between a man and his puppet—the mind of the former containing the mind of the latter—a dialogue? A monologue, as in the first act of California? A hybrid of the two? The title of the act hints at an answer, both in terms of exchanging a knee (a part) for a life (the whole) and McCarthy’s whole life being limited to Bergen’s knee, but no resolution is offered. As in the previous acts, the migration, the search, overshadows its illusive and elusive destination.
This foregrounding of the quest is one of two reasons California feels incomplete to me, and it is, I think, intentional. By not focusing on the actual point of arrival, the text resists any kind of literal or figurative settling, even when the speaker of “California” is at rest in her bedroom or Charlie McCarthy is safely stowed in his box. This, combined with the erasing of the memory at the beginning of each act, contributes to a perpetual dislocation that mirrors the speakers’ own psychological and geographical states. The unifying thread of ongoing migration, of a search for identity, however, runs through the full length of the text and helps the collection’s seeking cohere. As an exploration of dislocation, relocation, migration, and odyssey, California succeeds wonderfully.
The division of this narrative into three distinct units, however, leads to a type of incompleteness that seems less intentional; despite treating similar themes, the collection’s sections feel like three truly separate projects. The act titled “California” explores the same physical and emotional terrain as Denrow’s chapbook From California, On, and “A Knee for a Life” has appeared as a separate, eponymous chapbook. Act II serves as a tenuous connection between “California” and “A Knee for a Life,” and while these poems do begin to take up the question of identity that is present in the adjacent acts, they lack the focus and migratory movement of those acts. “If I said I wasn’t fond // of this body, // would you change it?” Charlie McCarthy asks Edgar Bergen, and the reader may ask the same of Denrow regarding California: a modified body to interrogate more forcefully these questions of place and identity, one that can undertake a complete journey, even if that doesn’t entail arrival at the intended destination. Still, regardless of where it leaves us—or doesn’t—California is a fresh, engaging addition to poetic work of and about California’s place in the imagination. Its earnest language and nomadic spirit will stay with the reader long after the last curtain falls.