It’s not often you find a book of poems that’s both extremely well crafted and also a page turner. I just finished Teju Cole’s Open City last night, and figured that would be my novel for the year — not realizing the extent to which this book, too, is truly a novel, albeit in verse. And like Open City, while it may not be about 9/11 directly, it was certainly written in its shadow. Here’s how the author describes it in a Q&A on the publisher’s website:
Jeremiah, Ohio is set in the contemporary U.S. Jeremiah is a half-cracked would-be prophet who has been preaching at people in rest stops and diners in rural Ohio. By chance he meets Bruce, a twenty-something guy who has lost his way, and who half-jokingly decides to travel with Jeremiah, hoping he might gain some direction. They gradually work their way northeast, until Jeremiah decides to head to the “center of iniquity”—New York City. There’s some of Don Quixote, some of On the Road, and a lot of the biblical Jeremiah running through the book. […]
There is a story, as in a novel, with characters, settings, and even the occasional plot twist. Instead of chapters, there are poems, which makes the story a bit more impressionistic and musical. Bruce does most of the storytelling, and while his poems have some fairly strict poetic forms undergirding them, his language is accessible and familiar. Around Bruce’s narration are poems in Jeremiah’s voice, which is much more lyrical, dynamic, and unique. Jeremiah can’t narrate himself across a room, but he can tell you a lot about how it feels to be in it.
It succeeds magnificently: I was spell-bound by the second or third page and read it through in one sitting. And I’ll be reading it again. Why? Because, first of all, I am a Bible nerd and a huge fan of Old Testament language. Also, as an environmentalist, critic of American consumerist culture, believer in Peak Oil theory, etc., I resonate strongly with the “half-cracked would-be prophet’s” American version of Jeremiah’s furious denunciations. An over-educated social misfit like Bruce, I can definitely see myself enabling someone like Jeremiah under the right circumstances. As Bruce says in “Modus Operandi,”
as half-politics, half-religion,
but what compelled me
was their warped music,
something necessary and unique.
And Jeremiah’s central complaint seems sane enough:
Have we not earned our mistreatment?
Have we not shimmied and chastised and bowled?
Have there not been city council meetings and testimony
that all should have attended
but instead we were found lolling in lounge chairs
or shopping for socks?
Engage, o my people! Be onerous and phrenetic!
Be vicious with your systems!
Who knows but that your world will shake
with the slip of an axle,
and your well-rehearsed unfeeling gloom
suddenly burst claws of fire?
(“Jeremiah at the All Saints Cathedral, Youngstown”)
Naturally, I paid especially close attention to the poems set in Pennsylvania. It’s at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in State College that Jeremiah reveals what set him off in the first place — the personal tragedy that opened him to a larger narrative of loss and desecration. Then on the Greyhound traveling east, the bleak landscape inspires him again to prophecy:
The hills are tired of wearing mud
the color of an old sock.
Yea, the wind
whistles warnings through the cracked windshield,
and we are pilgrims through a ravaged land.
Our eyes will find no comfort here.
Buried are the bones
of those who broke the first trails
from the Alleghenies, and forgotten their sons
who build shelters of pine bark. Indeed we must be
the last of the righteous.
It is for our sake the world still spins.
In a Scranton diner, Jeremiah apostrophizes a waitress:
Grace still struggles on this earth,
in her gray apron.
Woman of vigor!
Woman of lonely hills! Cracked
cuticles and a slipped disk will not be the sum
of your inheritance!
(“Psalm of Scranton”)
To anyone who knows the Bible, this equation of woman with suffering landscape should sound very familiar indeed. Though the mingling of King Jamesian language and modern speech may strike some ears as bathos, to me, Jeremiah’s rants were a pitch-perfect, jazz-inflected montage of vernacular speech with a kind of language which, after all, is never farther away than a few turns of the AM radio dial anywhere in America. I thought Sol really honored the spirit of the ancient nevi’im by updating them in this manner. He may have found inspiration in Cervantes, but Don Quixote is much more of a comic figure than Sol’s Jeremiah. I found the book humorous and moving in roughly equal measure.
Stylistically, the work is a tour de force, with poems in forms as various as acrostic, villanelle, prose-poem, Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative verse, and blues. I’ve enjoyed a number of other book-length narrative poems over the years, but I can’t remember the last time I read one so virtuosic — or so damn hard to put down.