New Publications:

The Thing With Feathers by Jessica Outram

by Antony Di Nardo

Is poetry story? A tale told twice? Once in the saying and once in how the reader responds? Perhaps. There is evidence of that when you read Jessica Outram’s first book of poetry, nodding your head and agreeing with her that “this is a story about feeling alive.” “Feeling” is the operative word here, and the reader finds that these poems are meant to be felt, absorbed and read with the heart in mind. The language evokes a self-analysis. The poetry emotes. Its imagery relies on binaries of light and dark, highs and lows, memory and reflection. Struggles and successes. Emptiness and fulfillment. Whenever description dominates a poem, it is used to reveal the heart of the speaker and has that special language of heartfelt words echoed in the mind of the reader. Emotions – of loss and anguish, doubt and despair, resilience and redemption – puddle at the bottom of the page.

The voice we hear in these poems talks mostly in the third person and, as the speaker tells the “story about feeling alive,” she faces her inner self, rooted in family and childhood, struggling with acceptance. She wrestles the personal demons she’s trapped and contained in poems that evoke the “jar” as a trope for the self as a vessel. In these poems, the speaker is addressing herself in the first person. As a poetic device it secures an intimate bond between speaker and reader, the reader almost eavesdropping, while Outram carries that “jar” from section to section in this book. Listen to how she begins one of these poems:

I opened the jar and it whispered to me,

a piece of the story is missing.

The jar is containment, whether empty or full, and is always in the process of becoming more or less the sum of itself. The jar is a piece of the story. Later in the book, she writes, “jars are / made to be used” but only after we learn, in a previous poem, that “jar writes at a desk.” I find fascinating how easily the poet manipulates this image of the jar into such different manifestations of the self as both subject and object, as both a vehicle for action and a vessel of past experience.

Some poetry is written to be appreciated for excellence of conceit and craft of language; some poems are to be considered as unique works of art, the stuff of Keats’ “negative capability.” Sometimes Outram’s work comes close to achieving such high praise: when her imagery and diction are fresh and lively, the language then flies off the page. Her poem, “The Thing with Feathers,” that gives the book its title, is a classic example of just that and well worth the price of admission. In this poem, “a wilted flower [is] delivered in the wind” and “there is beauty in death” as the poem’s persona, “waiting for sunflower doors to open, … dreamed of blue fish on willow trees.” What first appears to be a dead flower undergoes a metamorphosis into that “thing with feathers” and, having “prayed for a thousand angels to carry her,” the struggle with body-image is overcome, and the dead bird is re-animated, “holding onto beauty in its way just like her.” The imagery is dynamic. Outram understands that poetry is all about putting the right words in the right order.

“The Moon Shines a Path” begins with the brilliant line, “sadness tucks around furniture.” It’s early dawn and the last of moonlight reveals a cardinal at the window with whom the poem’s persona “… feels connected / talking to birds      instead of herself.” Outram does with words what flight can do for birds – and for readers alike: they takes us far, then closer, moving us in and through the light that a poem leaves upon the page.

In both these poems, and in many others, there is an enduring, mythic quality, a sense of wonder which relies on and emerges from Outram’s ancestral roots and from her close affinity with Nature. It is as if the seeds of childhood and that of her origins (“seeds” are another recurring image in this book) have sprouted and the resulting poetry defines a place for itself in the mind of the reader.

This is Outram at her best, sensitive to how words paint experience and how line breaks and diction can be used to create thoughtful pauses and lyrical moments, describing the symmetry that registers as poetry. In these particular poems she avoids the sentimental and comfortable clichés that sometimes clutter other ones, poems that dwell too long (and longingly, I suppose) on the state of the heart, as if it’s all that matters when emotions are privileged and the aesthetics of poetry be damned.

Fortunately, that is not the case when she writes about Nature. In “Five Ways of Looking at Summer,” she re-invigorates Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” echoing it almost word for word as she appropriates and personalizes the original poem’s playful language and powers of observation. “Wild Geese at Lake Ontario”, inspired by another American poet, Mary Oliver, is a sensitive execution of poetic flight that the speaker has been “folding into this space.” Outram once again explores an image that keeps re-surfacing in her work. That of space, both external and internal, a theme that’s repeated in her “Jar” poems, as well as in the first-person performances of the poems she calls “Act One”, “Act Two” and “Act Three.” These are some of the most successful and striking poems in this collection. They unravel and stage, beautifully I might add, an introspective state of emptiness as a space that’s waiting to be filled. She writes:

 

I’m empty, a container,

                                                                        a vessel to collect

                                                                        whatever you desire

 

I desire more lines like these, and eagerly anticipate Acts Four and Five.

Jessica Outram’s poetry is personal and intimate, characterized by lyrical flights that insist on honesty and sincerity. I can think of no better comment for this work than her very own words: “she watches stories of reciprocity / the value of slow, the courage of noticing. … eye to eye she understands stories of transformation / gifts of seeing, the knowing of living.” It is poetry that’s both affective and effective in recognizing the power of expression as a means of revealing the human spirit and how it is reflected in the outside world. There is clarity of language in these poems, and in that clarity the reader finds what it means to feel alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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