Story, Jennifer Firestone’s fifth book of poetry from Ugly Duckling Presse, reviewed by Dave Karp

One regular feature of contemporary writing instruction is the dictum that the writer should “tell her story,” bringing new and needed narratives to light and challenging old, entrenched ones explicitly or implicitly. Jennifer Firestone’s Story meets this challenge in a different way. The poem resists not so much dominant narratives as narrative itself; it is a story about what story does, what it can’t do, and how, memory being what it is, story ends up doing everything anyway. The poem begins in trauma; the “story” concerns a couple’s immediate and delayed responses to a drowning witnessed during a honeymoon vacation. However, the poem’s language foregrounds the various tropes we eagerly, desperately, and sometimes shamefacedly use in the face of what we can’t or don’t want to represent. In an interview with Rob McClennan given while she was writing the book, Firestone described Story as “the telling of a particularly harrowing event that happened at a beach while simultaneously the telling and resisting telling of how that story is constructed.” The poem she creates to embody this theme has a kind of cinegraphic nuance. What it tells cuts swiftly from one register of meaning and myth to another, keeping its readers alive to shifts in tone and to repeated and echoed words and phrases that brilliantly ramify. But the language carries more than enough undertow of dismay and grief at “Who you were with fear” to wallop us.

One of the compelling aspects of Story is what the book does with form. Firestone has always courted constraints, looked for the forms that allow a poem to unfold. Here, she discovers a number of conventions to dramatize how the poem’s protagonists, holding as Firestone has it “camera[s] in [their hearts],” confront, capture, reproduce, and subdue experience and memory. The format of the pages is itself interesting, an oblong rectangular like pages of a gift shop postcard book—Firestone alludes to postcards several times in the poem, images that fix and manage the past. The pages of these postcards, however, are mostly blank. Many of them contain a pair of couplets in a more or less fixed format: a longer line followed immediately by a shorter one in quotation marks that comments on, counterpoints, augments, or undercuts the first. For instance, take this couplet about the beached body that sets off the central trauma in the book:

In thought chambers a comparison: his neck stretched as a quiet turtle.

“Collapses, body smacks the shore.”

Here already is a fundamental theme: the way the mind draws on simile, allusion, the whole stock of substitutions to express and evade a harrowing present. Another form Firestone uses to articulate the force and scandal of this mental process is a longer, repeated, paratactic verse form that speeds up the poem and amplifies the dialectic of “telling and resisting telling.” Here is the first example in the book:

The bar man prepared several ornate tropical drinks repeatedly.
Presumably the ambulance crew patiently rattled protocol while lifting.
Presumably another tourist couple hopped in the back with humanitarian kindness.
Presumably the day was pitch perfect and the sea roamed mercifully.
Presumably there was a call to loved ones, a call to a doctor.
Presumably you thought this was your first call in marriage.
Presumably you thought many times I’ll write this.
A low moan pitched to the deep side shakes itself.

The repetitions emphasize how relentlessly mediated our approach is to our own memories, but their compulsiveness, washing up against the final line, also conveys the feeling that wells up underneath and “shakes” mediation. On that emotionally shaken note, let me mention one more notable form—there are a number of them I have not commented on. An entire passage of ten pages in the middle of the book lets graphic design take over, whelming and heaving earlier phrases from the poem up, down, diagonally all over the page, some of the phrases broken off or partly erased, as if they are being wrestled into a usable new narrative but also teetering with the unease and inadequacy of any such endeavor in the face of remembered waves of ocean and persistent waves of feeling.

In Story, Firestone has matched all these usable, stably unstable forms to a restrained, disciplined diction that can ring bitter changes on even such simple words as “glasses” or “sand.” There is also an impressively intent syntax to the lines, a canny use of fragments and involuted phrases, gnomic utterance and direct address. They allow her to shape a “story” that runs through all sorts of trope-ical strands used to articulate the climactic events—familiar tropes of beach vacation, of romantic encounter, of an ambulance racing to disaster, heroic rescue, kindly doctor visit, mythic emergence from the sea, imagery animal and mineral, even images of the writer at work. The way the poem doubles back and disturbs those tropes, and the way it returns to them repeatedly, makes both their necessity and failure clear. Perhaps the dominant two tropes in the book, however, are those of story-making, “paging,” and of filmmaking, “scene” shifting. While the poem insists on the dominance of this mediating language, the sounds of the words carry whelming emotion in assonance, consonance, sibilance, and alliterations, calling out the “oh” in “’A mouth oh’s, opals’” over and over again.

This book, then, is about the mediation needed to tell a story but also the unease beneath it. Near the end of the poem, the speaker insists that “What she does remember of truth was the feel of an impenetrable screen;” the screen is what we make and are left with. Sound tells another story: what we tell is a “bastard” child of the event, still scarred by what’s unsaid. The story told here is smart, ironic, impressively pyrotechnic, and quietly wrenching. Story makes an impressive addition to Firestone’s experimental oeuvre.

Story, by Jennifer Firestone. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, December 2019. 144 pages. $14.00, paper.

Dave Karp’s essay “Zhang Er’s First Mountain and the “Incommensurable” recently came out in Golden Handcuffs Review. He has taught English for over 30 years; for the last 22, he has been a high school English instructor at Holy Names Academy in Seattle. He is associated with Margin Shift, a reading series curated by the poets Matt Trease and Deborah Woodard, which happens every third Thursday at Common Area Maintenance, one of the last standing artists’ collective workspaces in downtown Seattle.

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