Thursday, January 9, 2020

Poem366: “The Crossing Over” by Jen Karetnick

The Crossing Over by Jen Karetnick

The Crossing Over by Jen Karetnick (Split Rock Review, 2019)

I thought today would be a good day to tackle a chapbook, and I happened to have one at hand: The Crossing Over by Jen Karetnick, the 2018 chapbook competition winner with Split Rock Review.

While I was seeking a shorter book on a complicated day, the reality was that the poems in this small collection were not light fare. This served as a reminder that the universe sometimes gives you exactly what you need, even if it’s not what you asked for. I spent a few hours today feeling out these poems, following their lush, vine-covered pathways, and I found that the work within The Crossing Over was complicated in just the right way.

The start of one poem, “Mobility,” was so arresting to me in its beauty. It begins, “If my path is that of a note blown through / the reeds of a bellowing accordion ….” The poem goes on to place of desire and physical sweetness, but at the outset, I’m struck by what an apt description this is of a life—how breath follows a circuitous path, then gets one loud, seemingly unending tone.

Many of these poems are quite musical, and I notice that she was once awarded a fascinating prize: the “Piccolo in Your Pocket” Poetry Prize from the Alaska Flute Studies Center. (She has a lot of prestigious prizes to her credit as both a poet and a food journalist, and her official bio says that The Crossing Over is Karetnick’s eighteenth book of poems.

Many of Karetnick’s poems have little moments of defining clarity, like the example offered above. These are often isolated, or maybe isolatable, moments in a poem with more meaning at play. These are my favorite moments, though—like in “Yearn,” where she writes, “I am a brief dream the ocean / once had. A blip of phosphorescence.” Karetnick recognizes the fleeing nature of life and of any moment in it, and we need to be reminded of this, time and time again. We really do.

A favorite moment for me is found in “Little Geese Swimming in a Sea of Bones,” which starts with utter confidence, declaring, “The sacrum is an ocarina, four / holes in two columns and a mouthpiece.” The poem continues,

You can put your mouth to the fissures
of many thousands of irregular
parts of rising axial skeletons,
play ancient tunes through chambers like cones
that resonate through narrow, entire
cavities. …

I admire Karetnick’s bold declarations, her musicality and her twisting logic. There is a lot packed in to this chapbook, which is a full meal, rather than an appetizer.

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