Saturday, January 4, 2020

Poem366: “How to Tell If You Are Human” by Jessy Randall

How to Tell If You Are Human by Jessy Randall  
How to Tell If You Are Human by Jessy Randall (Warrensburg, Missouri: Pleiades Press, 2018)

Jessy Randall’s collection of what her book cover calls “Diagram Poems,” How to Tell If You Are Human, is not my usual fare. The book features mostly early-twentieth-century diagrams from a variety of arcane sources, and Randall’s text is imposed into and onto these original sources. The result is that dusty, officious and somewhat inscrutable stand-alone images are imbued with warmth and humanity, and in the process, they offer deep and surprising penetration into humanness.

What really surprised me in this collection was its warmth. I felt this most intensely in a poem (or set of poems) accompanying a diagram of a baby nursery. The source image comes from The English Duden: A Pictorial Dictionary with English and German Indexes (London: George G. Harrap, 1960). A “duden” is a German pictorial spelling dictionary (the word was new to me), and the image presented is labeled “Baby Hygiene (Nursing) and Baby’s Equipment.”

In this set of diagrams, the nursery is unbelievably detailed. On the verso page, toddler stands in her crib (to which she is strapped). A uniformed nurse bathes an infant in a collapsible tub. A set of shelves and a table are awash in objects, all of which are labeled in the original duden — “the under-blankets,” “the safety strap,” “the rubber panties,” “the enema, a rubber syringe,” and so on. Recto, another uniformed nurse changes a baby’s “napkin,” again with an entire surface of accoutrements (“the teething ring,” “the rubber animal,” “the tin of ointment (tin of vaseline),” but here is another figure, “the mother (or a wet nurse) feeding (nursing, wet-nursing) the baby (the nursing mother).”

This mom or wet-nurse is unusually well equipped, and the 52 labeled items in the two diagrams range from the necessary to the ridiculous (“the elf picture,” one of Randall’s labels, not in the original). I remember how poorly equipped I felt when I brought each of my two children home from the hospital, and the source images recaptured this feeling for me (when, exactly, should I use an enema, and do I need a safety strap for my crib? [Reader: No, you don’t]). But interspersed with the original text are Randall’s additions: the poem, I suppose, although it all works together, with the original labels serving as a parenthetical heaping of too-muchness. Here is a snippet, with original duden labels in plain text and Randall’s additions in italics (these are numbered on the page, but I’m not sure how to capture that here, since the numbers don’t always line up with the text):

1-52 the nursery,

as if knowing the names for things
will make it all right

the rubber sheet (rubber square)

the medicine

the dreariness

the boredom

the under-blankets;
the nurse (children’s trained nurse, nanny):

more medicine
the terror

the safety strap (safety belt)
the pillow

the elf picture …

You start to see what I’m getting at—the poet, with her fears and sense of overwhelm, poking through the rigid correctness of the source.

It’s hard to tell where Randall’s poems begin and end. This set of nursery images from the dictionary functions clearly as one poem, without a title (except that offered in the dictionary for the set of pages), but the next pages are also from the duden (“The Children’s Playground,” the images are labeled). Are these the same poem, or related ones? They aren’t titled, and the table of contents lists only the source of the images. The two sets of pages feel different—the nursery poem is from the mother’s perspective, I think, while the playground poem feels like it’s from a child’s view.

Uncertainty is sometimes a hindrance to enjoying a book of poetry. It should be clear where a poem begins and ends, right? But in Randall’s hands, the use of uncertainty is a rhetorical tool, and an effective one. The impression I get is of someone who is desperate for answers and locked in an outdated library, grabbing book after book to see what truth reveals itself. In other words, the book enacts my exact feeling about the world most days. It’s inscrutable, and it comes without a clear answer manual, despite what religious fundamentalists will tell you.

I’ve offered a close view of just one poem to give an idea of this phenomenal collection, but it may be interesting to know some of Randall’s other source images: a dictionary of classical ballet, a book of indoor games and amusements, something called The Root Habits of Desert Plants (literal? pun? who knows), a Korean-language museum map, a planning guide for research libraries, and more.

When you find yourself suddenly plopped down in a strange country where you’re not sure you understand the locals, you have a few options: You can do your best to leave it, you can give in to confusion, or you can try to settle in and make sense of things. Randall’s poems are a strange country for me, but by the end of her collection, and certainly by a second trek through, I started to get my bearings. It was rewarding. I’d like to see more of it.


  1. The two panel Baby Hygiene poem originally appeared in Rattle,

    And Alison Rollins did a poem “after” it recently published in Poetry Magazine,