Elizabeth Jacobson dissects bodies. In her poetry, she exposes the innards of snakes, birds, and loved ones. Her language is both highly specific to the topic at hand and made universal through metaphor, so that each poem can reach a reader in a personal, often visceral, way. Her new book, Not Into the Blossoms and Not Into the Air (Parlor Press, 102 pages, $14), includes themes of nature, desire, and spirituality.
Where do her ideas come from? Do they begin inside or outside of her?
“Let’s say you walk from the inside of the house to the outside, and you’re moved by the temperature of the air or the smell of the air or just the feeling of the air on the body,” she said. “And then you have an emotional response. It can be hard to differentiate what comes first.”
The New York native has lived in Santa Fe for 30 years and since 2013 has run the WingSpan Poetry Project (wingspanpoetryproject.wordpress.com), an initiative that brings weekly poetry classes to local shelters. She is the author of 2012’s Her Knees Pulled In (Tres Chicas Books, 84 pages, $14) and two chapbooks.
The first section of Blossoms contains the poem “Blood Moon,” which is about the 1998 hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard in Fort Collins, Colorado. Many people have instantaneous recall for the images associated with the young man’s tragic death — specifically the cold, open field and the wooden fence where his body was found. But Jacobson doesn’t go down that familiar route. Instead, she details the frailties of the human body and soul.
“People are made of paper, love affairs/anything that tears easily,” she begins. A few lines later she writes:
Point at a rainbow, and it will plummet and slice your finger off.
Use your lips instead, to show others what you are looking at.
Don’t stand on high rocks or they will push you into the sky,
and you will be pressed like a flower in a book.
People are made from rain showers, hatred, smears of spit,
anything that might evaporate easily.
Other than a subtitle that references a hate crime, there is no indication on the page that “Blood Moon” is about Shepard. Someone who has never heard of him might miss that context yet could still connect personally to lines like “That night, the moon was a true blood red,” or “Don’t hold out your hands when the sun is shining.”
For Jacobson, the reading and writing of poetry is not limited to a highly educated elite, and it’s fine with her if you take from her work whatever strikes you. You can come back to her books in stages, picking up what you need at the time and leaving what you don’t — which is similar to her writing process. It’s easy to start a poem, she said, but crafting a poem from beginning to end is a different animal. And while the first draft of a poem can come in a rush, revision may take years.
“Taking that complete piece as a whole, raw piece of fruit that you’re now going to chop up and prepare something with is again something different. What are you gonna season it with? That’s the part I love. I mean, it’s kinda sick — just looking at one thing and moving it around for endless amounts of time.”
“Perfectly Made” is a prose poem she wrote soon after the 2016 presidential election. Though you do not need this information to find meaning in the piece, knowledge of her inspiration brings a different level of resonance to her imagery.
Northern Flicker you woke me from dark sleep, your head
slammed into my window, neck snapped as you dropped
to the frozen ground. I had been dreaming of Gettysburg,
can you imagine? …
I felt history
toying with itself as I stretched your stiffening wings
as far as they would spread and plucked out the stunning
bright orange tail feathers, one after the next, each quill spilling
a black ichorous ink onto my palms.
The image of the speaker pulling the bright tail feathers from the dead bird might strike some as funny or morbid because it could seem to reference President Donald Trump’s unusually orange skin and feathery hair. Others might see a broader statement about plumage and narcissism, while still another read is that the bird is Trump and Trump is all of us, because we are all part of the same history — or the bird is the United States and black ink is democracy. There is no shortage of interpretations, no division between the poem and what you think the poem might be about.
“When I read a poem, I want to feel like I’m getting some kind of answer,” Jacobson said, moving into a Buddhist-oriented, rhetorical mode of speaking, as if teaching a class of aspiring writers.
“I’m in a lot of pain. I’m suffering day to day just because I’m a human being on the planet, and it’s just part of our nature to suffer. I want to read a poem that’s going to help me understand what I’m doing. I’m going to learn from another poet’s experience. I’m going to figure out a way to live because I’m reading this poem.” ◀
▼ Railyard Art Project community poetry classes for all levels, with Elizabeth Jacobson
5:30 p.m. Tuesdays, June 4-July 23 and Sept. 10-Oct. 29
Railyard Community Room, 701 Callejon
Free; RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
▼ Elizabeth Jacobson reads at a concert of contemporary chamber music by Chatter
10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 8
SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, 505-989-1199
$15 (discounts available); chatterabq.org/product/june-8-2019