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Opening the Bruise: A Review of Jody Stewart’s This Momentary World by Jefferson Navicky


 

If a poet is a poet for long enough, and has published enough poems and books to have a Selected Poems, it must be a strange thing to look back through oneself as if to say, “Oh yes, I was really into THAT! And that, and oh my goodness {slight eye roll at former self} that too.” And yet, I imagine one of the gifts of being a life-long poet is that the books offer you proof of all the different people you’ve been. What a gift this is, and certainly not just for the poet; a selected poems like Jody Stewart’s This Momentary World (Nine Mile Press 2022) gives the reader a rare chance to closely follow the evolution of a poet from the 1970’s up to 2014.

In the collection’s first poem, “THE HARLEY ROAD MARSH MARIGOLDS,” Stewart writes, “Little lights strung / in a black mirror inside us. The mirror is / inside us…” Despite this opening that might seemingly foreshadow a poet whose focus is especially inward, the beginning sections of This Momentary World are decidedly outward facing. Characters from history come alive through the 18th and 19th centuries, and there are mentions of daguerreotypes, estates, stone castles, as well as appearances by “Cassandra, Anne, and delicate Marie.” Stewart balances an ornate sensibility with flashes of lyrical intensity and startling enjambment. For example, from “NATASHA: PORTRAIT WITHOUT LANDSCAPE,” she writes, “The air / is full of ashes. I hear birds lift // out of the branches…” That first break after “air” invigorates, and the assonance between “air” and “ash” feels like two strong poetic wings flaps that allow us to see those birds, their tails disappearing into the lovely subtle rhyme of “branches” and “ashes.”

The melding of senses is another of Stewart’s strengths. From “CONSENT”: “The huge white flowers stained now / with tea and chocolate and I can taste / how I won’t leave you.” And on the facing page, in “SOLILOQUY THAT BEGINS WITH TWO FAMOUS ALCHEMICAL PAINTINGS”: “I want to talk you out of those small accidents / that have nothing to do with listening.”

While accidents can be listened to and the process of leaving has a taste, it was often color, and particularly red, that caught my attention throughout this book. One of my absolute favorite poems in the entire collection is from the “CASCADES” series, “IV / the parallax”. The poem is strung throughout with red both overt (“her mouth red”) and covert (“the black spots of blood along her leg”). It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl who sneaks out to meet an unnamed person: “This is the night / of the first time.” The poem manages to be elusive yet matter-of-fact, both wistful and exact, told at a remove (“This was being third person / as she saw herself give up”) yet exhilaratingly connected with the night. It ends magisterially: “She saw the moon assume mortality and stop / perfectly on her face. Poor us, she thought, // and all the physical world stood up!” I stood up to give this poem a standing ovation.

As the book progresses, the poems become more grounded and personal

As the book progresses, the poems become more grounded and personal, and the language backs off some of its earlier lyrical intensities in favor of a more direct, plain-spoken yet not-any-less-bracing honesty. The prose poem “MARTIN” is one such poem. Making the most of the prose poem’s inherent ability to almost lull a reader into prosaic comfort, Stewart waits until the end of the poem to literally light it on fire. The narrator, a six-year-old girl, climbs under the bed of her drunkenly rageful but asleep father to set the bed on fire with a clutch of matches. “The air began to craze, my throat tore apart.” The mother races in to put out the fire before any screams wake the sleeping brute. However, it’s not only the fire that lights up this poem. Amidst the flames and beneath the bed, the narrator says, “I remember how warm the space was beneath that bed, a place where my whole body fit and felt briefly safe.”

Once the reader arrives in the selections from GHOST FARM (2010), the daily grind and poetry of farm life take over, allowing the speaker to heal and settle into routine: “Most days were okay. Nausea just another kind of job.” The poems in these later sections are sharply observed, but blunted by exhaustion of caring for animals and running a farm. Mostly, it’s a contented exhaustion attuned to the fact that “words don’t do the work” (from “BRINGING BACK THE FARM”). The poet has hard work to do, and that physical labor takes priority over poetry. A reader gets the sense that poetry is not less important, but simply that the care of living beings takes precedent. “When I was a poet, I carried a pen I could never find. Now a knife in my pocket, twine, grain, syringes – whatever fits.” There’s a pervading sense of tiredness yet ongoingness, which gives way to deep satisfaction.

As I read these hard-earned final poems in This Momentary World, I remembered the end of Stewart’s poem “AGAINST SILENCE”: “Nothing works until the bruise / opens—“ Across the decades, we listen to Jody Stewart’s voice change, watch her subjects expand, but Stewart remains steadfast in her commitment to examining pain, opening it up, and allowing her readers to watch it do its work. That final hyphen tells me that, to Stewart, the bruise is always opening.

 

Jefferson Navicky was born in Chicago and grew up in Southeastern Ohio. He is the author of four books: Head of Island Beautification for the Rural Outlands (2023); Antique Densities: Modern Parables & Other Experiments in Short Prose (2021), winner of the 2022 Maine Literary Book Award for Poetry, as well as the poetic novel The Book of Transparencies (2018) and the story collection, The Paper Coast (2018). He earned a B.A. in English Literature from Denison University, and an M.F.A. in writing and poetics from Naropa University.



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