Our poetic moment is such that, in encountering a contemporary poet working with humor, commentary about the poet’s work focuses almost obsessively on the funny bits. Humor is hard to involve in poetry, it’s true, and leaden-headedness does not make for good poems either. But from the way people talk about Jennifer L. Knox’s Days of Shame & Failure, you’d think that the book was all hip hilarity. Sure, there are some excellent examples of Knox’s unique and powerful absurdist wit in poems like “I Led the Horse to Water” and “Me Time.” But don’t expect her voice to always sound like Mr. Ed hacking the talking car in Cocteau’s Orfeé. There are thoughts and feelings here that won’t be hidden by a clown nose.
Death and aging take up a lot of space in Days, and while these things often do have their absurdities, Knox’s most subversive approach to them is the full-on gaze. “The New Twilight Zone: Empty City,” the fourth poem in the book, puts us in the air over a post-apocalyptic city, “Its three mighty rivers: now kinked, dribbling/ hoses.” It’s almost a cliché but for the details, “brown mounds going green again with psyched,/ thriving mold” and “too much sun” for a Cold War nuclear winter. So what did we do to ourselves here? Who once provided “[t]he voice on the tower mic:/ silent as a pinned moth under glass”? This poem does not ask, but it tells. The visual richness holds readers pinned under glass as well, wondering if the poem is a kind of foreshadowing or even a warning.
In “Nature Is Changing Me,” Knox’s narrator laments the loss of power brought on by the natural processes of change:
d And so it
d surprised me to see that nature is
d forgetting me, and as it does, it is
d 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.
Here nature changes the narrator “into prey,” something weakened by and weaker than change, making choices motivated more by self-preservation than the sense of agency often taken for granted in youth. If the narrator seems uncomfortable with this progression, any such feeling is leavened with what feels like a kernel of acceptance. Perhaps a little caution is okay.
Another face-to-face confrontation with the forces of nature occurs in “The Killer,” exposing the terminal intimacy between the dog Stella and an elusive rabbit she ultimately, triumphantly destroys. It’s not a funny poem:
finally she laid down with that flash, draped
one leg across the broken back and licked it
head to toe, tasting all it still was, its open black
eye steering towards some other she’d erased.
It’s a daring poem, one that risks an uncool beauty to deliver a spiritual reality that acknowledges the calculated, obsessive brutality of predator-prey action. Yet somehow this takes place without dishonoring either dog or rabbit, or human observer. As Stella licks the rabbit a plausible mammalian love seems to be manifest, but it’s an awful, unsentimental love. The poem’s not hunt porn, but it isn’t squeamish either. It’s—is this a bad word?—honest.
A larger-scale death is addressed in “Immutable,” the closing poem in this volume. Now we see the seriousness behind the funny-ironic dodo bird on the book’s cover. Beginning with the intimacy of a single death’s leavings—“Not the ink nor the name/ it sculpts in waves and slashes”—this poem moves through war and into extinction. We kill and die individually; we kill other humans, and finally we kill other species. What’s the point of us, anyway? the poem seems to ask. Is human existence just one big body count? No, not only that:
Not the way we’ll slip out of this world,
our swan songs clogging the ears of all
the wordless species going first—
“After you.” They do not define us:
these skins, these sky-high
piles of hides.
If not that, then what? We haven’t yet rendered ourselves extinct; the poem says “we’ll slip,” future tense, so there’s still hope we won’t dodo it completely. Can we hold off from self annihilation with risibility and boneheaded violence? This is what was foreshadowed in “The New Twilight Zone: Empty City.” At once predator and prey, our greatest quarry is ourselves. We build cities that our choices consign to “psyched,/ thriving mold.” But there’s still time, still time before such great obliteration arrives, still time between now and “we’ll.”