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A Slender Grace

by Rod Jellema.  Wm.Eerdman Publishing Co., c2004.  118pp
ISBN: 0802827829.

A Review by Martin Galvin


Bright is the Dark
           
            What dominates the poems in Rod Jellema’s A Slender Grace is the regular interplay of dark and light and the way “thinking narrow” intervenes to make the world accessible to imperfect man and allow the reader the glimpses of grace that bless himself and the poet. .  The stanza that titles the book starts a theme that echoes in many poems about that slender grace.

“Think narrow.  Think the line of light
that leapt under the bedroom door
to save the frightened child who was you.
Your thin escape from being someone else.
The slender grace of a sudden thought
that takes you past your self….”
                       
Humans have struggled against the dark since Adam switched off the light.  That writers and painters sometimes find relief by appealing to the light that makes us feel more fully is no more surprising than that philosophers and theologians argue in learned tones and with learned citations against the ignorance of the unenlightened mind.
The ancients feared the winter for how it ate the light and feared even more that the sun, having surrendered to dark, would forget to return.  Cold alone we can endure.  Blinding black condemns us, but the dark that welcomes light frees us. 
Jellema’s light, though, is not the overbearing brightness of the modern world.  In“A Prayer for Darkness in an Age of Glare,” a choral poem, the Leader reminds the congregation:

            What we now fear most slips into our streets
            And living rooms fully lit, planned in boardrooms
            And offices between 9 and 5 by men in suits and ties

And the People reply:

            …Sometimes we shield our eyes from all the glimmer and shine
            and sometimes, Lord, we tremble in fear of some blinding ray
            or nuclear flash of ultimate light

Not, for Jellema nor for us, these negatings, but rather what he seeks, and welcomes us to, is an affirming light, in its various manifestations and implications, that is man’s salvation.  There is a spirituality to this writing, clothed in a tranquility we each seek, especially in the busy present,  and always it is light and its concomitant dark that bring us toward an understanding of ourselves. Finding, as good poets do, delight in the small things:  gray boxcars, bicycle parts, the crowing of cocks, a vagrant sneaker, the spinning of a drying at the Laundromat, he offers us in gentle tones the way toward the hopeful light.

But poetry belongs in part to a realm beyond that existed, perhaps, before the reasoned world became dominant.   Jellema’s poems, in their quiet and surprising way, are poems in praise of the moments of light we are sometimes granted; poems that recognize and explore the yielding dark because it helps us to delight in the light the more, and do so with the poet’s ancient tools:  the crisp surprise of well remembered images, the cleverly crafted phrase, the uplifting link with things other. The last section of a six-part delightful paean to – of all things – the nomenclature of a bicycle suggests a poet at the kind of work poets do:

                        (6) Bicycle Seats

            The row of little monuments
            in the schoolyard bike rack
            these gentle hands, palms up
            intimate but never shy
            these nuzzlers

            that hold like the sacristy
            the mysterious vessels

            each a little shrine
            raised to await
            the coming miracle.

Earlier, Bicycle Parts” has echoes of Hart Crane’s evocation in The Bridge:  in Part 1 The Frame, he remembers “just a few times I must have seen/ the real shape of the harp by itself” and he remembers too “a sense of narrow strings in sudden slants of light/ that made [him] gentle it down into the grass/ so maybe more than wind might find it there.”

In many of his poems, these sudden elements of grace in the everyday are vehicles toward a sense of the divine. Finishing A Slender Grace, the reader allows himself to be convinced that for Jellema, at least, “Everything that lives is holy.” And that, with Henry David Thoreau, that earlier American mystic, he senses that “The sun is but a morning star.  There is more dawn to come.”           
           
What Jellema passes on, after all, is the quietly received glimpse from time to time, a glimpse made the richer by his choice of focused light .  Johannes Vermeer comes to mind, the narrow but vivid illuminations of his Milkmaid and the Astronomer’s globe. Perhaps not coincidentally, the painter Van Gogh’s place in the darkling world of the Netherlands is explored in three of Jellema’s poems.  In his poem “The Potato Eaters,” he reminds us of the simple life of the peasants:

            But the dark lets us in.  These potato-
            People cracked by sun and wind and dust
            Are created from the dirt dug daily
            With their hands.  What shines their supper
            Of potatoes to life and dignity is not
            Artistic arrangement…
           
Thoughts that take one past oneself are the stuff of poetry for Rod Jellema.  In an illuminating introduction to the poems, he talks about the need we have for a “double-seeing” that gets us beyond logic to a kind of spiritual unity with other beings, including a Divine Being.  His poems welcome us to consider “that forms created by imagination are incarnate bodies, embodiments of the human soul.”  Now this is heady talk, worthy of the philosophers that Jellema, happily, is not.  He is a poet, full of love for language and image.  That his closely detailed memories of the ice-man, the vagrant sneaker, a barbeque in Little Rock, the snow emergency route, the car-pool radio allow us a glimpse of another light beyond the everyday is his gift.

            Another major subject for Jellema is the human love of sounds:  the sounds of language, “the wipers saying Fear Not ,” of water and birds and the humming old man. The sounds of jazz music blend with his dominate concern with light and its concomitant darkness in several of his poems.  In the final lines of  “Bix Beiderbecke Composing Light” the jazz master of the cornet:
             Shading himself from morning stabs of sun,
 [he] got back to where he was going all along,
             the dreaming mind, the diamond-making dark. [his italics]

In another poem, The bluesman “Blind Willie Johnson,” whose mother “blinded him/with an angry handful of lye,” finds his way toward light.  A slender grace comes to the damaged man and to his listeners in the second and final stanza:

            Play it, Willie,
            They used to say
            And he’d hug it hard
            And under the night train
            A cold owl singing
            He’d slide those big chords
            From that smooth
Throbbing guitar of his
            With a knife.

In “A Disquisition upon Whistling,” he replays the sound he loves because “Real whistlers go it alone.”  Whistles follow the poet through his young life and bring him at last to the dulcimer maker who lives behind him in his present retreat. At the end of the poem he promises
           
If grandchildren come to visit,
            in the summertime, I will just happen
            to lead them to look for berries
            very close to where they can hear
            the dulcimer maker whistling.

That gentle tone is evident throughout the collection:  The way that mothers, after decades of depression and war,  could serve pineapple upside-down cake, “making everything right.”  How a wedding toast can be constructed around the seven meanings of the word flush, ending with “(6) full to overflowing, /(7) a sudden rising of birds,” and, recalling how, as high school students, “We Used to Grade God’s Sunsets,” he confesses “Our arch and witty critiques/covered our failures to say what we saw.”

            Rod Jellema has had a rich and varied life:  graduate work in Edinburgh, Scotland; honored professor and head of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland and now Professor Emeritus;  a volunteer for the Witness for Peace delegation to Nicaragua in 1985.  His award-winning poetry has appeared in three previous volumes,
one of which contains translations from the Frisian poetry. The present volume, then, culminates a search he shares with us for the simple human needs: solace and hope.

Even the structure of the book is notable for its generosity of spirit and concern for the reader.  A goodly number(109 pp) are here.  An introduction clearly establishes the poet’s interests and approach.  Four pages of notes at the end help the reader with unusual names and the origins of some of the poems.  Nothing esoteric or painfully academic here. Good solid information for which the reader – at least this one - is grateful.  I wish all poets would adopt these easy and reader-friendly techniques: a preface that tells us something about the poet’s way of making and, at the end, some notes on things that need noting.


Martin Galvin has been writing poetry for 30 years. He, has authored books ; and has poems in Poetry, The  Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Commonweal, Poetry East among other journals.  He spent August at a residency at Yaddo.

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