Julie Joosten, from “Love Poem”

Julie Joosten’s second collection, Nought, includes a 14-page list poem that I think is just tremendous. A thorough exploration of the whole poem would require a lot more space that I make for myself here, so the only option is to chop off what I hope is a representative sample piece and spend some time with it. It’s a bit unfair, and takes away something of the momentum and atmosphere of the longer piece. But it’s the best I can do. And I did ask the poet for permission, so here we go.

from “Love Poem”

And you caught me crying in the kitchen.

Are you perhaps my superego?

I ride the train to you.

You’re a marvellous imp, though you hotly deny it.

And you sleep under my desk.

And when I glanced up, I saw you through the window, smiling as you read.

And you are your own hermeneutic system.

Will you be our baby’s godmother?

And you wrote that you heard their voices in this poem, but yours is here, too.

And we wag our whole bodies at you.

And I took my hand from yours / but not because I wanted to.

And you blush under your face mask.

And are the goddess of the backward glance.

And call me kuklamu.

And on your way out the door to school you say, pretend we’re married, and you kiss me passionately, the way people kiss in the movies.

While you were backpacking, you wrote me with pencil in a rainstorm / and when I opened your letter, only faint marks were left. 

And I have tobacco for you.

And you bark for the ball.

–from “Love Poem”, published in Nought © 2020 by Julie Joosten. Used with permission of Book*hug Press.

I’ve written about a list poem once before, on one of George Murray’s Diversions. (George has a Selected Poems coming out this year, by the way. Keep an eye out!) One of the things I say there is that many list poems are fun because they can take us anywhere: the absence of a cohesive narrative or argument allows the poet to flit distractedly from one impulse or image to another, so that we as readers can play with making connections without the usual connective tissue. 

Something else is at work here, though. The circumstances of the poem – a domestic situation, with a lover, a baby, and a dog – are consistent, and while the speaker of the poem wanders, her circumstances don’t really change. There’s a general feeling of contentment and warmth, albeit with a fair bit of distress or anxiety as well – why is she “crying in the kitchen”?

Along the way there are some nice musical moments: the repeated ks in “caught me crying in the kitchen,” or the rich interplay of sounds in “blush under your face mask.” And some nice snapshots of a couple in what seems like a space between new love and settled down – there’s plenty of passion but also an ease, a tranquility in the relationship despite the fact that they still live apart. This extract is from around page 4 of the poem, and by this point I get into a certain rhythm, accumulating detail and gesture, question and concern, in a way that amounts to a kind of mood.

An illustration from Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658. I stole the image from an article in The Paris Review.

All of this affection and play reminds me of the famous 74-line section in Jubilate Agno by the 18th century poet Christopher Smart that extols his cat, Jeoffry:

For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.

For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.

For he can catch the cork and toss it again.

For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.

For the former is afraid of detection.

For the latter refuses the charge.

For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.

For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.

You can find the rest of the cat section of the poem here.

Smart’s ode to his cat is about more than his cat, of course. As the title implies, it’s also a religious poem: for Smart, the beautiful playful perfection of his cat is proof of God’s hand in creation. Because who but a Benevolent Divine Will could invent a creature as full of fine quality as Jeoffry? 

Joosten’s poem is not so clear on the nature of the Divine, or of perfection. But the cascade of expressions has a similar cumulative effect, assembling a larger sense of joy, and of an appreciation, even of blessing.

Who thinks dogs are better?

Not to say that everything is perfect here; there are complicating factors that emerge throughout. The mentioned lover doesn’t seem to be living with the speaker (“I ride the train to you”), and their status sometimes seems a bit unresolved or insecure – “Will you be our baby’s godmother?” feels like a strange self-doubting question, and at other points in the poem (beyond what I’ve excerpted here) the speaker claims “we are not lovers,” though their intimacy (and the kissing in the doorway) seems too passionate to be anything else. Perhaps there are lingering anxieties about the status of their same-sex union (it’s clear that both of them are women): “And I took my hand from yours / but not because I wanted to” might allude to some kind of awareness of disapproval? Or maybe the speaker’s feelings include sexual desire but the loved one is conflicted on this point? Also, the lover’s pet name for the speaker, kuklamu, is derived from the Russian word for a doll, I believe, so I assume it’s an affectionate pet name, but my research into the Urban Dictionary tells me that kukla can also refer to the type of woman who is superficially concerned with appearances, so there may be a bit of a dig in there too. 

Other parts of the poem mention the loss of a mother, and of a dog named Cricket. The poem gathers imagistic and emotional data, taking its time to paint a fuller and richer picture of the life the speaker has with those around her, and like any life this one has its griefs and cares. I don’t need to know the exact details to get the general gist.

But there’s something else, and for me this last element is what makes this poem so remarkable. Let me approach it by way of a question: In the excerpt above, is the “you” who caught the speaker crying in the kitchen the same “you” who “sleep[s] under my desk”? Surely the one who wants to “pretend we’re married” is not the same one who “barks for the ball,” is it? IS IT? What little I know of psychology suggests that it’s unlikely that a “marvellous imp” might also be someone’s “superego.” So what’s going on with the pronouns here? Who is the speaker, and who the object of affection? Is the poem sometimes told from the perspective of the dog? And who the heck is speaking in a pronoun brain-twister like “And you wrote that you heard their voices in this poem, but yours is here, too”?!

The answer is Yes. To all of the questions. The “I” at the centre of the poem blurs from the I who comes and goes from the house to the dog who pads around in it, the lover who visits and even occasionally (I think) the baby, who maybe is the one who “took my hand from yours / though not because I wanted to.” Reading it again I had a marvellous time rethinking some of the lines as if the “you” were not so obvious – how the baby might “wag our whole body at you” or what it might mean for a dog to be someone’s superego, or a baby’s godmother.

Look, I’ve been married long enough to feel comfortable saying things like “We’ll drive you to Charlie’s,” when I don’t know whether my wife or I will be the one going. I don’t believe I was ever so gauche as to say, “we’re pregnant,” but I may have said “we’re expecting.” One of the pleasures of being a part of a group, large or small, is being able to speak about its ways of seeing, to possess and use a collective pronoun like “we.” In a larger context these statements can amount to a kind of cultural shorthand – “At our weddings, we eat more dessert and drink less beer.” 

But this is about something more than belonging. It’s a rearrangement of subjectivity, a level of empathy and connection to such a degree that the border between the “I” and the “you” and the dog and the baby is erased. Even in the most analytical terms there are ways our bodies overlap: the nursing mother, the slobbering dog with its fur in your mouth, the interminglings of sex, and the expansions of shared sensations and experiences. Maybe all of them are part of the same thing, a four-figured entity with its own perception and self-awareness.  The insight, as it’s revealed in the poem, is so striking because it’s so obvious – or maybe it seems obvious in the poem because of the gradual way it dawns on me as a reader. I don’t feel confused or disrupted as the “you” begins to diffuse. I feel welcomed into a small world made of language and illuminated by love.

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