“Jewel Thieves and Butlers and Cellophane Graves”: J. MacBain-Stephens Reviews Jessie Janeshek’s Poetry Chapbook Channel U

The backcover page of Jessie Janeshek’s recent chapbook, Channel U, excerpts Reddit to define Channel U: “Stands for ‘UHF’ or Ultra High Frequency. With the TV tuned to ‘U’ that would enable a second tuning knob that allowed you to get to the higher channels.”

Then there are comments from SomeGuyNamedPaul and IronSloth because of course there are: we cannot escape from commenting and social media finger-pointing and why should we try to? We are all looking to propagate our own higher channel. Janeshek holds up that mirror. We break the glass of the TV and follow her poems down twisted tunnels of wires leading to Gothic and glittery Hollywood sets, the erosion of “community” and poems that point a telescopic lens toward a trendy death. From the poem “Fly Me to the Moon”:

… You said the abortion          sent an unwanted soul up

and I identified its pearls                     the perils and furs of the hard way

seven girls posing in front of the witch jail

with dead lips and victory rolls

or seven girls snapping you off at the knee

so your corpse would fit in the bathtub.

Janeshek uses glamour and violence as a selfie stick. (The cover art alone of this chapbook: a photo of actress Maila Nurmi who created the character “Vampira,” and her friend Jack Simmons dressed as a “healing from plastic surgery after the car wreck” James Dean, is a game changer.) The photo is cleavage and bandages and aloofness but reading Janeshek’s poems and their combination of sexuality and ulterior motives of old Hollywood, yet twisted and wrung out to dry with a modern flair, showcase humanity’s flaws. The poems are dark and exquisite. From the poem “How do you Know If You’re on the Right Path?”:

I sat at the vanity                     lip gloss pots melting

a sad instrument                             You were in love with summer …

… You say a child’s blackmail’s distracting

but it will be fine.                    I tie you down             pry open your mouth

the tranquilizers in your throat

little halfmoons clacking down.

Janeshek writes about lip gloss, nail polish, wigs, and vanities in one section and then describes scenes of pill popping and murder. She crafts Hollywood in a new reality, probably a truer one: the glamour masks the pain for a bit but then there are blood stains, and someone gets stabbed.

There is a rotting deer leg but then someone wears a Cleopatra costume, and everything is somehow okay for a minute. Because these costumes are just quick changes.

Hollywood marks time through its leading ladies and their outfits but Janeshek shows us what is behind the dressing room door, from wrongfully sexualized girls to a woman with a needle in her arm. There is a bright shimmering of moment to moment passing by, how the newest flavor of the month is valued then discarded.  We see time unfold— first there is Clara Bow, then Marilyn, then Kim Novak and always the blood stains in the basement.

Janeshek’s speaker is present in all of these Hollywood clips, but she probably carries a knife in her waistband and wears black lace to bed, her own quick changes trounce through insults, creameries, hotels, pool sides, parties, cemeteries. From the poem “In Situ / Karma Not God”:

… I wear a black wig and corset

I wear a feathered arrow and a headband

like it’s gone through my skull

I play hopscotch to wrap you in bandages

like a postmortem James Dean

your cock ringed in fire and lipstick.

In Janeshek’s world, girls change outfits, maybe murder or maybe just watching a murder. There is a voyeuristic feel to these poems: the violence and secrets of who is sleeping with whom, wearing what, following someone else down a dark alley.

But Janeshek summons us in Channel U to be our best horror movie character in style. To lipstick up and glow in the dark, to look at our own darkness.

Time is slow and fast at once. It feels like we are time traveling in “Slow Burn,” watching a girl age to women, not doing what she used to do, and now’s she’s neurotic, imperfect:

You used to write tight philosophies

he handed out full sized candy bars

but we know you’re neurotic

no woman puts on       peach panty backlash

and you have been summoned

by a clock that is lying

and we know you’re neurotic

all eye shadow and undertaker makeup

a stained sailor dress

so perfect it could not go on

With the sailor dress, we almost picture a modern-day meme of Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, all blush and bobbed hair, but we know how that ends. The darkness is scary, the selfies more edgy, but we have to look; we cannot change the channel.

Channel U, by Jessie Janeshek. Albany, New York: Grey Book Press, February 2020. 27 pages. $6.00, paper.

J. MacBain-Stephens lives in the Midwest and is the author of four full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset Is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016); The Messenger Is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, 2017); We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition; and The Vitamix and the Murder of Crows, which is recently out from Apocalypse Party. She is the author of over twelve chapbooks. Her reviews have been published in Agape Editions, Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, Horse Less Press, Ploughshares Blog, Tinderbox, and Ghost City Press.

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