Friday, December 9, 2011

Review: The Enchanted House, by Beth E. Janzen

Sometimes, you just can’t judge a book by its (back) cover (blurb). If you were to read the impenetrable bumpf describing Beth E. Janzen’s first full-length poetry collection The Enchanted House, you’d probably be left scratching your head as to exactly what the poems were about. The back cover’s vague plaudits indicate that something is going on here, but they belie the clear-eyed and deliberate vision that Janzen brings to her work.

With a nod to Margaret Atwood (who provides the book’s epigraph and not a small amount of its influence), The Enchanted House explores the fissures of relationships and the challenges of being a stable self in an unstable world. Like its titular image, Janzen’s collection is a single structure compromised of many rooms, using reoccurring tropes and images to move the reader around its chambers.

The most prominent of these devices is the poetic rendering of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus from Greek mythology. With pieces like “Persephone: Birthday” and “Persephone at 30”, Janzen superimposes contemporary images onto a classical figure. The best of these pieces is “Persephone at 13” which explores not only the inherent angst of a teenager’s relationship with her mother but also a burgeoning sexuality, a girl’s discovery of men, the various phallic identifications ( “snakeskin purse”) and their seminal residue (“His body erupting from the lake/ the light trapped above his lip” … “He’s promised he’ll come for me/ split the world like a seed …”)

This keen eroticism is another wonderful room in The Enchanted House. Janzen does erotic very well. There were lines in poems that made me catch my breath for the way they captured the subtle force of physical intimacy. For example, from “Sleep Train (Georgia O’Keeffe)”:

The conductor asked for my ticket and
I kissed him till he fell into my mouth
and disappeared

The sky was that big

Or take this passage from “Untitled Transformations”. Here, we could easily see the lines descend into cliché, but Janzen uses her great skill at picking just the right word at just the right time to bring her image into fresh focus:

… Your tongue enters
my mouth, mobile as a snake, over my teeth, then deep
into the cup of my throat.

There are other reoccurring tropes. Janzen, who lives on Prince Edward Island, does a great job with some shore-related poems, specifically “Low Tide” and “Invitation” (the latter containing probably the single strongest closing line of any in the book). But the last reoccurring image I want to explore is something that isn’t as readily accessible on the page, something the average reader might miss if she wasn’t careful. There is a restrained but unmistakable violence to several of the poems in The Enchanted House, and this is a startling counterpoint to the collection’s gentler moments. This image from “Burned Man in the Passenger Side” – about, aptly enough, a badly burned man in the passenger seat of a car – speaks for itself:

Fruit of a new-peeled agony
shiny skin, all scar tissue
where they peeled the black away
and let the fragments scatter

Even eroticism can descend into moments of destruction. Here is a description of the lingering effects of a long-awaited kiss from “Kisses Easily Obtained Are Easily Forgotten”:

Instead, out of the quiet
it’s on us, it gores us,
tears through to entrails.
Blood-soaked, under an infinite sky
we die, saying I was ready.

It is a testament to Janzen’s talent that she balance so many tropes – classical figures, violence, seeds and leafless trees, the rhythm of tides, the mysteries of eroticism – in such a short and concise (some might even say minimalist) collection of poems. The Enchanted House as many rooms to explore, all of which contain hidden and not-so hidden treasures.

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