Editor’s Note (Jan 13, 2012): Amanda Jernigan’s book Groundwork, from which these poems were excerpted, was named one of the top five poetry books of 2011 by NPR.
Amanda Jernigan writes poems that make your brain fizz with their rhetorical flourish, the chops and changes of her lines, their dense, active language, their allusiveness, and their brawny intelligence. She writes out of what she calls a scholarly aesthetic, a formal and referential rootedness in tradition and wide-reading. Besides poems, she writes essays and plays. She is a contributing editor at The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes & Queries. With her partner, the artist John Haney, she has produced limited-edition books and broadsides under the imprint Daubers Press. Her work has been published and performed in Canada, the United States, and Germany, and is featured in the online archive of the Poetry Foundation. The dog’s name is Ruby. The photos are by John Haney.
These five poems are from Amanda’s first collection Groundwork: poems, published by the exciting Canadian literary press Biblioasis in fall, 2011.
Groundwork comprises three poetic sequences, the first situated on and around an archaeological dig in modern-day Tunisia, the second situated in and out of a distinctly heterodox Garden of Eden, the third testing the waters of Homer’s Odyssey as a medium for the working-out of the relationship between artist and traveller. Written over a period of eight years, alongside other, unconnected lyrics, these poems represent stages in the development of a poet’s thinking about language and place; at the same time, they form a series of parallel meditations on past, present, and the mythological constructs with which we seek to join them. —Amanda Jernigan
Five poems from the sequence “First Principals”
By Amanda Jernigan
The time, if time it was, would ripen
in its own sweet time. One thought of dawn.
One felt that things were shaping up,
somehow, that it was getting on.
Day broke. Upon the waters broke
in waves on waves unbreaking and
night fell, unveiling in its wake
one perfect whitened rib of land.
I slept, and while I slept I dreamed,
a breaking wave, a flowering tree,
and all of one accord I seemed.
I woke, and you divided me.
The Birds of Paradise
Adam and Eve and Pinchme
went down to the river to bathe.
Adam and Eve were drowned.
Who do you think was saved?
Between her pills, his poisons,
the water in which we bathe
is less than pure: I rather doubt
that even I’ll be saved.
My pet canary, William, died.
But, I am reassured,
there is a factory upstream
to replicate the bird
in polyvinyl chloride: moving
parts, a voice-box cheep —
with proven nightengalish means
of putting one to sleep.
Do I wake or sleep? Indeed,
the answer is the same.
Ask Finnegan. In fact, ask me,
if you can guess my name.
Adam at the Altar
The name shall answer to the beast
………………………..without a moment’s staying:
fish and fowl — and flesh, not least —
But save your ‘wilt thou’, parish priest:
………………………..for she goes without saying.
All make-believe amounting to pretending
to the throne, I banished Eve, and Adam,
loath to go it on his own, went after.
That year the grapes fermented on the vine,
the fields lay fallow. I thought I’d take a stab
at beekeeping, but years have passed: you almost
wouldn’t know there was a garden here. The streams,
uninterrupted, flow from Eden as they always did.
The apple trees, untended, go to crab.
Imagine it, Adam: old woman and grey,
I found myself walking again in the garden,
the trees in full fruit as they were on that day.
Therein lies the question: again, did I eat?
Again. It was as we remembered. More sweet.
See also “Adam’s Prayer,” “Bats,” and “Lullaby.”
Some truly beautiful work here, Amanda. Playful, eloquent, accessible, and loaded.
“and all of one accord I seemed.
I woke, and you divided me.”
There is something both staggeringly powerful and, somehow, universally “true” about this.
I hope to see more of your work on NC. In the meantime, I’ll let this sink in.
It’s become my routine to read the latest offering from NC with my morning coffee. There is always something enriching to read and every now and then my morning gets a wallop. Like today. These poems reach deep. So deep that I know I am not seeing to the bottom. Refrain is going on my fridge. Thank you dg and AJ.
I cannot escape the glorious cadence of these poems. Thank you for sharing them with us here.
Such music in Amanda’s poetry. The cadence and rhythm lulling and significant without being overly self conscious. Especially in Aubade:
“Day broke. Upon the waters broke
in waves on waves unbreaking and”
What I appreciate so so much about this work is the tension between the deceptive whimsy of the words and rhyme in stark contrast with the gravity of its meaning. Very intricate … I particularly love the fourth stanza of “Birds of Paradise” (eerie) and the work as a whole has a tonal complexity to be envied. I didn’t notice until the second read that the series was written over an eight year period and it gave me a new appreciation and awareness of its genesis (no pun intended). Thanks for sharing, Amanda.
Thanks for this considered and encouraging response. I am particularly happy to hear what you say about the cadence of these poems. As Douglas wrote, there’s that scholarly bent to my work. It’s my hope that word-music pushes back against the potential chilliness of that.
Wanted to clarify, briefly, about the span of time over which these poems were written. The sequence “First Principals” is part of a manuscript that comprises three poetic sequences; the whole of the manuscript was written over the course of eight years. “First Principals” is the middle sequence, and its poems were written more or less between 2005 and 2007, if memory serves. So: the work was leisurely in its unfolding, but not quite eight-years leisurely — except so far as these poems in some sense emerged out of the work I was doing before, and merged into the work I did after.
Thanks, Numero Cinq, for giving them a home —
With best wishes,
Thank you for these stunning poems. Their rhythms bear a sense of inevitability that pierces to the heart.