|Publisher:||Syracuse University Press|
Protest poetry, like protest itself, becomes shrill in high doses. No matter how arresting the work of a Daniel Berrigan, Ana Castillo, or Mongane Wally Serote, when reading an entire collection, the attractive anger of righteousness can get muted in volume, causing the message to get lost in the noise.
Local author Kim Jensen avoids such rigid moral stridency in her recently published poetry collection Bread Alone. In the preface, she writes that a number of the poems contained herein were written in January 2007, shortly after Saddam Hussein was executed during Eid al-Adha (the festival of sacrifice), poems that explored the "era of lies, torture, and aggression" during the George W. Bush administration. Jensen dubbed these poems "unholy parables," and some of these--such as "For Lorca," with its "shriek/ of sirens, the stiff, bitter chorus/ of militia boots swallowing the ground"--move with the lyrical pith of protest. Jensen's tone, though, is never self-righteous, and she doesn't blindly stare at the ostensible sources of outrage. In Bread Alone, the violent underbelly of the 2000s isn't merely located on the urban desert battlefields of Iraq or the contested areas of Lebanon and Palestine; it trickles down and invades the immediate surroundings, where a "tribunal of smiling housewives" can become a jury or "metastasized desk planners/ inoperable nostalgias of every sort" become the mundane madeleine reminders of failure.
The result of this wide-angle focus is a bunker mentality of survival, an attitude of hard-earned daily victories over the malignant forces that feel to have infected many parts of daily life. It's an approach that opens Jensen's poetry up to her subtle shifts and poignant intimations. "The Feast of Sacrifice" begins with the image of Hussein's body swinging from a noose, but concludes in the passive public collusion in the spectacle of heinous acts, where "from the number of hits and visits/ --that people are eager to hear/about all sorts/of disasters." "I still believe/ in the power of words" starts "Rock Bottom," the sort of familiar opening salvo in a screed that might envision poetry's power to change the world, but Jensen twists that expectation by suggesting that it's not her words that are wielding the power: "Isn't it punishment enough/ to endure/ this wreckage of a human/ story?"
Throughout Bread Alone, Jensen trusts verbal economy, and the concise force of her pieces--most are but a page long--lends them a stealth force. She conjures stark descriptions--a child's room illuminated only by the "screen's blue reminders/ of our relentless defeats," a wired world that offers "stockpiles of anger," an "omniscient dead critic" who speaks in a "Vito Corleone whisper"--that sear themselves into the brain as indelible imagery.