Jeremiah, Ohio by Adam Sol

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Jeremiah, Ohio coverIt’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,”

I interpreted
Jeremiah’s rants
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.
(“Jeremiah, PA”)

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.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Link roundup: Unbalanced exchanges, extroverted tyrants, and biology’s dark matter

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Poetry Daily: “Engagement,” by Adam Sol
I admire how the title and the last line take this political poem to a higher plane.

The explosion will exceed the necessity of the occasion.
The exchange of fire will be unbalanced.
The response will be disproportionate.
The reporter is factually incorrect, theoretically misinformed, morally reprehensible. “Where have all the bats gone?”
An update on white-nose syndrome in Pennsylvania (and throughout the east). It seems that while colony-living bats in North America are all going to become endangered if not extinct, the more solitary bats will probably be fine.

The Christian Science Monitor: “Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis”
No real surprise here, but sad nonetheless.

I am: A Twitter Poem by Pär Thörn
Not a set text, but a constantly updating scroll of new Twitter posts beginning with the words “I am” — rather mesmerizing to watch. Here’s a sample I just collected before it disappeared back into the ether:

i am truly blessed
I am nothing to be played with
I am excited to start.
I am so glad he will get voted
i am on i post something den dipset
I am crazy.

NewScientist: “Biology’s ‘dark matter’ hints at fourth domain of life”

The facts are that there is lots of genetic diversity, and unquestionably most of it is unknown to us. It’s legitimate to consider that there’s genuinely new stuff out there.

The Australian: “Japan syndrome shows why we need WikiLeaks”

Unfortunately, all this information, including the original cables, was released only this week, through The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian newspapers in Britain. If publicised earlier it might have increased public pressure on the Japanese government to do more to ensure the safety of reactors.

But without WikiLeaks most of it probably never would have seen the light of day. One of the justifications governments use for not releasing information is to avoid “unnecessary” fears.

Allen B. Downey: “The Tyranny of the Extroverts”
An old essay that an contact just linked to on his microblog. (Side note for all you Twitter fanboys and girls: This is what you can do on a federated microblogging system, subscribe to someone on one service while using another service. Pretty nifty, eh?) It links to another, similar piece from the Atlantic, but this one’s more quotable, e.g.:

If “interpersonal skills” really means skills, then I can’t object, but I’m afraid that in the wrong hands it means something more like “interpersonal style”, and in particular it means the style of extroverts. I have the same concern about “communication skills.” People have different styles; if my style isn’t the same as yours, does that mean I lack skills?

As for teamwork, well, I’m sure there are some problems that are best solved with collaborative, active learning, but I am equally sure that there are problems you can’t solve with your mouth open. “Japan Proves Truly ‘A Friend Indeed’ After Hurricane Katrina
Now it’s our turn.

Poetry Daily: Two Poems by Elaine Equi
There is a right way to write didactic poems, and Equi shows how.

Work to abolish
the most abject poverty of all—

that of knowing
only one world.