…a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too – life itself, including birth and death. —Mary Kathryn Jablonski
Louisiana State University Press
84pp. Paperback. $17.95
ON ALL LEVELS, JAY ROGOFF’S VENERA embraces the sacred and profane, beginning with its title, which suggests the extremes of both “venerable” and “venereal.” For those savvy about such obscure things, Venera is also the name of the series of Russian spacecraft that explored the planet Venus. Rogoff has described Venera as a book of love poems, parents and children, lover to lover. The book is a tour de force intellectual rollick through Italy, in terms of its art history. And much more.
To those familiar with Rogoff’s many books of poetry, including, The Art of Gravity (Louisiana State UP, 2011), The Long Fault (Louisiana State UP, 2008), How We Came to Stand on That Shore (River City, 2003), and The Cutoff (Word Works, 1995), his verse is known for its formality, intelligence, and exactitude. He has been the dance critic for The Hopkins Review since 2009. As Visiting Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, he teaches courses from Shakespeare to Modernist Poetry and has published his poems extensively in journals, including Agni, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and The Southern Review.
While Rogoff’s poetry is generally accessible, it can be at times challenging. Having said this, however, it can also be, even in the same erudite, elegant, complex poem — playful, erotic, and at occasional moments, raunchy. Surely, this is not without intent. Upon closer inspection, the reader uncovers complex meter and rhyme structures, including internal rhymes that weld the poems, and clever slant rhymes that unconsciously fuel the senses.
This emotional, intellectual, acrobatic play weaves a tapestry that is quite thrilling. Venera is split exactly in two, and I would submit that the first section, titled “Only Child,” a variety of poems in theme and in structure, is not unlike a seduction, a type of foreplay. It beautifully prepares the reader for the second half of the book, which unfolds as measured, steady and strong. Section one shows the range and versatility of the poet, engages and prepares the reader for the full experience. It is a display comparable to the astounding mating dance of the Bird of Paradise of Papua New Guinea: at times elegant, elaborate, perfected; other times, humorous, yet powerful, in your face even.
Rogoff begins the sequence exploring not only a portrait of the Virgin Mary, but the way in which we view the feminine, in self and other, and in relationship. The poet seems to be subtly coming into a certain sense of social responsibility in his poetry. Indeed, he has remarked about this at recent readings. This maturity can be felt throughout the collection, in which the poems are placed in a larger (art) historical or social context. He does distance himself from engaging in first person emotional drama. This is not to say that Rogoff has lost his ability to be vulnerable and to emotionally engage the reader. For example, his poem “No Dream” maintains its reserve while taking us in a series of questions through the conceit of the dream undreamed. Was it real, or did we imagine it? The poem accomplishes its compelling task in couplets that almost go unnoticed because of deft enjambment and slant rhyme (dream/perfume, erect/conduct, swallow/vanilla, skin/sun, etc):
My lips brushed it – or did I dream
that nape exhaling such perfume,
those fine hairs wicking it erect
in my breath’s breeze to conduct
odors too thick, too sweet to swallow,
pregnant with roses and vanilla?
In section one of Venera we are taken back and forth from the otherworldly to the mundane: from the realm of piano music and paintings to the silverware drawer, from a symphony of birds to the primal bed of intercourse, overheard by a child. In a piece titled “Mother and Child,” he begins in an everyday tone, “Hell of a place to start a family” and later in the poem uses elevated language as beautiful as “They kneel crystal with offerings, their waters / distilled in the effulgence of her face.” Further along it changes again with language describing birth as coarse as “simply undivine, unbearable / a watermelon bursting through her cunt.” Shocking, to experience this shift in the same poem. Surely the poet’s intent.
Rogoff concludes the first section with four poems that squint at our love of life and hint at death. Stellar poems. Like “Life Sentence,” in which a murderer tends daffodils, with grace. It is not only Rogoff’s precise word choice, but also the expert pacing of this poem that is remarkable. And when one is given a life sentence, isn’t it time that is, and should be, notable? The poet writes with authenticity, having worked in prison writing programs in the past. In “Dirty Linen” the absence of the leading character is noted through scent in the poem, primal indeed. And in “Only Child” a woman wakes in the night from a bad dream, and the poem employs a circular rhythm and dialogue between the figures that is magical, almost melding them, concluding on a note that reminds one of the utterly vulnerable tone the poet was able to achieve in his early chapbook Firsthand (the text of which was reprinted in How We Came to Stand on That Shore). A voice one might have missed in the mature poet. Yet it is Rogoff’s restraint that distills the emotion here as it ends the poem:
the only child to get you up at night for water
MMis the small child of this visitation —
MMMlike smashed glass, hand dangling
an eyeless bear —
MMMour child. I cradle you, your back
and bottom sweating in the dark.
MMWe breathe together,
MMMMand the dark at my back
Section one of Venera concludes with “Laughter,” a poem in seven sections, each a tightly woven sonnet. The overall theme is the competition in Florence for the relief bronze Baptistry doors, which were to illustrate the Bible story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Like the Renaissance artists demonstrating their skill at its height, so too, the poet shines, and his demonstration of the sonnet form prepares us beautifully for what is to come in section two of his book. The poem’s sequence imaginatively includes a call for entries, a play on the name of Isaac meaning laughter, a description of the scene cast in the doors, a vision of the boy as an animal, and a persona sonnet spoken by Isaac. It is notable how seemingly easily, how expertly, the poet takes on the voices his characters throughout the book: an ex-husband, a kindergartener, a son, a husband, Isaac, and later the Virgin Mary, and the angel in the Annunciation.
And the much-anticipated second section? Here the poet hits his stride. In section two, titled “Venera,” Rogoff delivers 24 sonnet-length poems all with two-word titles the first word of which is “The.” The section begins with three bombshells: “The Reader,” “The Mother,” “The Whore.” All, of course, descriptions of the Virgin Mary – and more. They are also descriptions of a detail in the Ghent altarpiece on the book’s cover, Mary Enthroned, by Jan van Eyck. Other poems in this section examine details of the painting as well. The altarpiece, an early 15th century 12-panel painting has had a compelling history, including fire and theft. Some aspects about it remain a mystery.
As in a number of the poems in this book, Rogoff skillfully takes us from the historic to the contemporary in “The Whore.” He begins with the “Behold the painted woman on her throne” turning the reader’s attention to the historic painting, but Rogoff quickly leaps to a fantasy description of the book on her lap instead (a highly unusual element in the painting), imagining she reads about “angels breathing on the phone, / falling to weightless knees”. As he continues in his cheeky eroticism, we assume the poet addresses the oil painting, “if I could prime under your oily glazes / till your book smacked the floor, I’d wring a cry / from your high throat. Throw off your diadem. / Apprentice me beneath your jeweled hem / to labor in profound, unpainted places”.
Like the altarpiece itself, or any substantial artwork to an avid collector, Rogoff’s poems reveal more with each subsequent reading, and one often gets the feeling that there are subtleties beyond one’s ken that perhaps with research or additional careful study of the work, or simply given time, one could grasp. This is an exciting feeling, a feeling that compels one to read each poem repeatedly, deliberately. An example, which may or may not have been intended by the poet, can be found in the sequencing of the three Mary poems, which begin the second section of the book. They are so powerful together in this position that one almost cannot help but think of them as a female version of the Holy Trinity. When one reads about the Ghent Altarpiece, there is much written about the central panel, Deity Enthroned (immediately to the right of the Mary Enthroned panel), and the debate as to whether the figure there is Christ, God the King, or a representation of the Holy Trinity, marked by the three-tiered crown upon his head.
Masterful, too is the overall sequencing of the poems in this book. There is little to fault. If section one holds one or two weaker poems, perhaps too personal in reference to easily place in the larger context of the book (Who are “Barbara” and “Malcolm” the reader wonders momentarily?), section two has no such issue. The beautiful dénouement of section one, preparing us for the second half, is duplicated in section two, where Rogoff concludes with a beautiful climactic sequence. The poem “The Fountain” is a tribute to the feminine, an absolute Venus poem, which begins, “All things flow from her. We know her tears / create the stinging sea”.
“The Garden,” “The Mirror,” “The Bride,” “The Table,” “The Mirror,” and “The Lover” round out the collection. Art historians reveal that Mary Enthroned shows the Virgin Mary dressed as a bride, and Rogoff speaks of marriage as a mirror in “The Mirror,” when he offers us a redux of many of the images from earlier poems. He sees the Ghent altarpiece painting of the Virgin Mary as a mirror reflecting a mystery and longing for her to “swing her eyes suddenly up”.
Of note in this too-brief section is the gorgeous poem “The Table,” in which the poet envisions the Annunciation from the angel’s point of view:
The angel is in love with her. He wants
to break his contract as the messenger.
He wants to speak for himself. But what terror
in choosing the dreck of human romance,
to feel wing-feathers scatter to the winds;
The poet, as ever, employs enjambment and rhyme with ease and skill. His 10-syllable lines seem like conversational bytes in iambic pentameter, seem human. The exceptions to this meter reveal the angel’s exasperation. The internal rhymes play on the reader’s subconscious mind (break/contract/speak/dreck): the poem is tied together just as the angel is tied to his duty, which he must carry out. If the first section contained poems that alternated sacred and profane, section two more often seems to meld the sacred and profane within the single poem, as seen in these two examples, a painting of a virgin we imagine to be reading a racy novel, exciting the poet (simultaneously exciting us?), and the notion of an angel who wants to be human so that he can fall into earthly love.
In “The Lover” Rogoff concludes the book with a poem that harkens back to the Shakespearean tradition, which has been subtly building with each sonnet in the collection. Familiar to almost all of us, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), arguably one of the most exquisite love poems of all time, ends: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Shakespeare implicates the poem’s power in keeping the beloved alive.
Similarly, as Rogoff ends his collection, we again we see him plead with the figure in the painting to look up. Then he turns the tables upside down and imagines her engrossed in the reading his very poems! But wait. Is he speaking to the woman in the painting or to us when he says, “Lift your … eyes off that page”? And so we think of the poet imaging the reader (us!) also absorbed in the poems. There is sublime transfiguration here. An amazing climax – leaving us both thoroughly satisfied and wanting more.
Lift your luxurious eyes off that page.
Nothing there can save us from the ravage
of the skin’s quick touch into bones – old themes
crumbling our entwined bodies downward grace-
lessly. What remains! – absorbed by your face
absorbed in the reading of these poems.
While the poems in Venera may seem at first glance to be ekphrastic, Rogoff instead uses the Ghent altarpiece as a touchstone for the poems, allowing him to play with sacred themes. This is a perfect fit for the sense of responsibility to the larger world he hopes to address through his work as he matures. To call Venera a book of love poems is an oversimplification, for it is a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too – life itself, including birth and death.
—Mary Kathryn Jablonski
Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq, a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.