Preface: Jennifer Denrow’s California is one of the most underrated books of 2011.
These poems are an ethereal mapping of how our selves, our voices, our thoughts, and our desires are embodied, or, as it is, disembodied in the act of being. To exist is both a sorrow and joy, but what do we mean when we say something exists? How does place exist? How, through the act of thinking and speaking, do we transform ourselves, our own being? What does it mean to have a mouth? What does it mean to use it? And what does it mean to use someone else’s mouth? Denrow reaches inside and manipulates these questions into poems that are mirrors as much as they are their own breathing bodies, challenging the boundaries between the real, the artificial, and the imagined, and pointing to the place, the California, where they meet.
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.
The book is appropriately ordered into three acts which, rather than sections, speak to Denrow's interest in the theatricality of being; how we act and are acted upon, how our selves become other. The first act, the long poem “California,” follows a speaker through her yearning to leave her life for a California that is more fiction than reality. “I should drive away from my life,” she states, and that is only the beginning. California becomes myth, utopia, and salvation until, ultimately, the rest of the world becomes an imitation of California.
I buy California style pizza and beer. I drop my ID when the woman
asks to see it.
No one in the store looks like they could be from California.
A baby eats some keys.
But what’s frightening here is that the speaker’s California is imagined, an end of America that is a means to forgetting her own inability to be other than herself. “If California didn’t exist, I’d still want to go there,” and that’s the terror of a heaven, that it could also be a hell, that it could be right now, that it could be nothing.
The third act, “A Knee for a Life,” is an ingenious series of epistolary poems between ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, which is as sorrowful and funny as it is disturbing and tender. Again, these poems raise issues of agency, theatrics, and the continual cross-pollination of the real and imagined.
Even in the stage light
your birds are not quiet.
Your hand is a little colder today. Are you feeling well?
Has anyone ever told you your hands are like soft, skyless
The question here, what or who animates us and what does it mean to feel or sense that animation, is at the root of what it means to speak, think, and create in this world. The answer is a dive into the spiritual grace and frenzied mystery that compels us to imagine beyond ourselves, and that Denrow is such a master of. From “California”:
…He said, Why do you want to go there?
Because I have to.