Days of Shame & Failure by Jennifer L. Knox
Review by Laura Minor
Even the lovers of poetry get bored sometimes, and we often bring a little of that disenchantment with us when we sit down to read the new book that came in the mail.
But Jennifer L. Knox’s fourth book of poems, Days of Shame & Failure (available on Bloof Books), made me stand up, spit my tea, and then die of jealousy like a teenager fuming around her bedroom, ripping up Tigerbeat pin-ups of Jennifer L. Knox. Knox has been compared to Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman, R. Crumb, and musician Randy Newman (who holds the honor of Knox’s epigraph), but can one poet really evoke so many offbeat comparisons, and contain them all? A funny poet who is also really good? A comedian who can actually write a screen-smashing good line of poetry? Feels like a set up. Yet these poems do what every poet wishes they could do: everything.
The poems in Days of Shame & Failure hit hard on the cognitive level, as well as the heart. They stand up and troll their own consciousness. They use a formula without being formulaic. They are not forgiving, yet they are empathetic. They are adults, these poems, but they are not above tipping the table at the dinner party over. They twist reality without forgetting humanity. And, this book leans towards a dark comedy, but is entirely sincere. Can I say I’ve never read anything like it? Yes. Am I grateful for Knox’s brand of imagination? Also yes. Knox turns the middle-aged poem on its back and furiously tickles its belly until the whole room feels like celebrating.
I think the greatest compliment a poet can give a book is to admit that it inspired you to break open the ribs of your own patterns in poetry, pry open your voice, and change something that has been bothering you in your own work. I’m not saying I’m going to miss reading the rock-solid dramas, the bulletproof, straight forward lyric narratives, or those who assess all of that formative, dark psychological work from the perspective of an wistful adult writer, but here’s the thing, she’s good at those too. She throws a couple of straightforward heartbreakers your way just to let you know she can, and will. Running away with Knox is one of the best things that ever happened to my future poetry.
To the poems! First, Days of Shame & Failure is an utterly original book with an authentic range of poems. I don’t think I have read a book with a wider range recently. A lot of it is not going to comfort you or make sense at first. But, she really is that different, vacillating between edgy prose pieces, image knockouts, fantastic dreamscapes, and earnest milestones that reflect the wear and tear of life. The first line of the first poem is, “The bedazzled tribe of yahoos has returned” (from “The New Let’s Make a Deal“). And, in many of these poems, Knox knows no logical boundaries (in other words, she would get ripped in a graduate workshop). For example, she begins her prose poem, “I Cast the Shadow of a Sword over Sky & Sea,” with the lines, “Police found a sixty-nine-year-old volunteer clown sodomizing / a rare Siberian tiger in an earthquake-ravaged apartment.” One thing Jennifer Knox clearly possesses, across all of the poems, is invention.
One leg of Knox’s inventiveness is language play. In the “Ten Million-Year War,” she throws this line in: “Load the powder muzzle! Hoist the mizzenmast!” You’ll notice that throughout the entire book, she uses onomatopoeia for rhetorical effect: ah-aw, chomp-chomp-chomp-gulp, er, Eeeengh, yo-ho-ho’s, Yorrrrhoooohoooo, loop-de-looping, rrrrrripped out, etc. Knox’s reputation for inventive use of language is due in part to this attention to the sound of words—used in combination with rhetorical questions, and repetition that still manages to surprise the reader.
The other side to her invention is the fantasy leg. Knox makes leaps out of the mundane, incorporating the banal technological and non-poetical landscape into her poems. In “Me Time II,” she writes, “Did someone say “cape”? / Google: cape sale.” In fact, she breaks a lot of rules to get us, as readers, to enter new psychic spaces (I don’t think I know a poet in history that gets away with this many exclamation points in a book). Knox also has a talent for heavy-hitting lines that always seem to end in funny: “Promises are no longer made to me because I’m a middle-aged person. / People stop bothering to lie to you once you’ve been lied to as many / times as I have. / They think you’re used to it. / I’m not, and that’s a sign of immaturity” (from “I Want to Speak to the Manager”). Here, it’s the freshness of thought that leads us to laugh before we realize why we laugh. Yet, in “Life’s Work,” the plot-turns and juxtaposition of characters in the poem deflate the notion that Knox is not a serious poet, that she is reliant on the merely funny or wacky. And in poems like “The Real River” and “Certainty is Born of Pain,” she proves that comical asides never detract from her lyrical gift.
Knox’s greatest moments combine mining the quotidian moments of life and putting them in a bucket along with other human necessities and themes. “Only the Beginnings,” for instance, uses Lasik surgery to illustrate those open-ended questions of love and life that plague and comfort us at the same time. And in “9. Description of Fellowship Activities: Complete in the Space Provided. Do Not Continue on Additional Pages,” she uses a prose poem about money and poetic ambition to describe the muted frustration in quantifying our lives. “Nature is Changing Me” illustrates the humility we have towards our continual removal and simultaneous infatuation with nature: “And so it / surprised me to see that nature is forgetting me, and as it does, it is/ changing me into prey that mumbles, / ‘Bless the heater while it lasts, the apples / the mushrooms…’ a thing that goes around / blessing things, playing it safe in the grass.” “The Kensington Stables,” like many of her poems, places the animal world just outside our window, contrasting it with the numbness of our human-credit-card-machine, media-blurred daily lives:
I saw a horse lying in the street on its side in a hose puddle
breathing heavy, surrounded by little girls gently petting it
and cooing. Imagine what it is to die like that: your killer
size immobilized and patronized by pink glittery nails
and sticky hands as if you were harmless, or a unicorn.
These maneuvers show the banality of everyday actions mixed with the surreal, because isn’t that what we need to see at our peculiar modern moment: how fantastic life can be?
Knox achieves magical realism as a poet by surprising us at every turn, and then looking back with a wry smile that is better than just ‘clever.’
For example, in “Between Menus,” the speaker starts off just as you’d expect: some people going through the motions of ordering food, and all of a sudden, the poem turns with, “Suddenly my ears / were flooded with the sound of bees…” This is Jennifer Knox at her best. You don’t see the turn coming. She’s got a roundhouse when it comes to the turn. But, while she twists and turns, she remains a grounded poet, unafraid to open all your drawers and expose the contents. In “Sakura Matsuri,” for instance, this happens at the level of image: “The trees are blooming furiously, Incredible- / Hulk style, blossoms swan diving into the abyss … Everything / is a prison of the mind, a drawer crammed / ajar with infinite unmatched ankle socks.” And don’t think poetry, or poets, are immune. Knox writes about them in an elbow-to-the-ribs, nyuck-nyuck way, and always couched within a poem nominally about something else: “Some poets think their feelings are more special than regular people” (from “Henry Mancini: Now There Was an Entertainer”).
Knox does the hardest things to do, and that is why we should all be jealous. She is good at being a poetry rock star. She moves effortlessly between the comical and the earnest, using self-examination without the pitfall of the self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, or the self-obsession of a navel-gazing poet. And she often laughs at her own jokes, breaking some formal contract between the speaker and the reader.
My favorite last line has to be from “Ballet on the Radio”: “You’re doing your best to sync with this ballet on the radio, to sew / a steeple from the static, to turn your scraps into scrap-/books, into book-books, into bookworms, into worms / in the wardrobe made of wet green wood.” It is as though while Knox is getting busy making poetry fresh again, just for us, she doesn’t forget to drop a few masterful tricks as crumbs for the reader to devour.
Right now, great poetry is not just best words, best order, it is the cultural engine that drives a national identity, and melds the personal economy of the heart with the technological windfall that has befallen us. Days of Shame & Failure is at once an internal conversation about reality and fantasy, aging and self. Except, Knox manages to spread “the self” out, through third-person characters and fantastic scenarios, which is a hard place to hide self. Some books tell ghost stories from their past, some take lyrical leaps into the void, and some bring historical significance to define the human condition. At the very least, if those are not your kind of poems, read this book, because it’s a refreshing addition to Poetry’s (capital P) wheelhouse. I want Knox to write the next sci-fi blockbuster. I want to talk boyfriends with her in the woods. Knox contains multitudes. She finds the magic in the dreary, and somewhere in this pre-dystopian marriage, the natural world is watching us and waiting. As a matter of fact, someone is watching your every move, and it’s Jennifer Knox, as she writes at the end of the book’s first poem, It’s that kind of poem: a poem for the end of the world.
Jennifer Knox’s new book of poems, Days of Shame and Failure, was published by Bloof Books on December 1, 2015. Her first three books of poems are also available on Bloof: The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Drunk by Noon and A Gringo Like Me. Her poems have appeared four times in the Best American Poetry series as well as the anthologies Great American Prose Poems, From Poe to Present and Best American Erotic Poems. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, McSweeney’s, and Bomb. Jennifer was born in Lancaster, California—home to Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Space Shuttle. She received her B.A. from the University of Iowa, and her M.F.A. in poetry writing from New York University. She has taught poetry writing at Hunter College and New York University. She currently teaches at Iowa State University and is the proprietor of a little company called Saltlickers.
Laura Minor is a writer and a singer-songwriter who received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry has most recently appeared in Hobart (forthcoming), Spring Gun Press, Bicycle Review, Trivia, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Sixers Review, Lungfull, and Mantis. She was a Teacher’s College Fellow at Columbia University, the recipient of the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Award, and a finalist for Steel Toe Books & Pudding House Press. She is currently working on a third record (forthcoming in spring 2016) while she finishes her debut book of poems as a doctoral candidate in poetry at Florida State University.