Reviewed by Christina Pugh
Read in its entirety, Jane Mead's new collection The Usable Field has a texture that is reminiscent of both unbroken dream and the perceptual field experienced by a person who is almost too awake: a life lived, incidentally, on a vineyard in northern California. It is on the cusp of such a distinction that this book's considerable value resides; and Mead’s voice, with its sometimes impoverished and always ravishing frequencies, reveals this liminal place as home.
The Usable Field is not quite a dream book, not quite a landscape book, nor exactly a book of elegies -- though in another sense it is all of these. It is first and foremost a book about the phenomenology of personhood finding its integrity and often its literal bearings in a world that, though familiar, feels perennially unmapped -- a place in which persons must search not only for the content of the soul, but also for the delineation of its very boundaries. There is thus a certain sort of phenomenological, not to say philosophical, motion sickness at the core of Mead’s work; and it invariably governs the way in which the poet perceives the world, whether as landscape or as human relation. The insistence (and morphology) of her search for boundary and delineation may be found in two passages from two different poems:
is loping in the
in the morning. Nowhere
are you where we are not.
In grief the pilot knows you--
no need to say take me to my so-called soul--
she is your so-called soul: she knows
you will be waiting when she lands--she wants
you to be with her if you drown.
In the first passage, the metonymic spillage of deer color creates a Gestalt wherein the observed animal – the dog -- becomes indistinguishable from its surroundings. This collapse of figure and ground is emotionally borne out by the authority of the italicized insight that follows: any geographic or conceptual distinction between the “you” and the “we” has dissolved. In the second quotation – so eerily reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems,” in which the pilot keeps “keeps / on steering headlong into the waves, on purpose” (The Dream of a Common Language) -- the female pilot not only “knows you" but “is” your so-called soul,” as proximity becomes a disquieting transitivity-as-intimacy: “she wants / you to be with her if you drown.” In both of these instances, the self, even while on the verge of dissolution, retains its strange perspicuity and indeed its skepticism (“so-called soul”) in the face of the categories which define both itself and its relation to others, whether human or nonhuman. Indeed, this is a voice that, as we are told elsewhere, was given "to believe in nothing / before [it] believed / in the jay.”
In the preceding passages, we can also hear the plain style sounded out in dissonant notes. With her paradoxical combination of stuttering and oracular sureness, Mead is echoing and yet resisting the musics of several women poets before her: Dickinson, the H.D. of Trilogy, and even Louise Bogan (Mead’s “High Cliff Coming,” for example, is reminiscent of Bogan’s later “Night” and “Morning” poems). It is most gratifying to hear the poet listening so intently to this aspect of her voice. The pitch of this book is consequently higher than in some of her previous work, which sometimes erred on the side of flatness; but I also sense that her visceral distrust of high lyricism abides. Such distrust reveals itself most often on the micro-level – for example, in the occasional obstreperous diction choice such as “bleep,” which “ruins” a higher and more musical pitch of declaration. Though these moments can jar, I am convinced that this infinitesimal ruination is what keeps Mead’s poetry in an authentic relation to itself. So much contemporary poetry lacks precisely this sense that the line, and the poem itself, must function apotropaically (as a formal and materialized defense against other possibilities of verbal incarnation). Helen Vendler makes the point succinctly when she writes the following of Whitman: “…one ought to mention as well the temptations that the poet’s mind encounters along the way….and how these are staved off or (in some cases) yielded to” (Poets Thinking). In Mead’s own words, we may discern in her work “a cavern of darkness / where the phrase is missing / at the bottom of music.” The traces of the unwritten, even (or especially) as resolved in the often harmonic surfaces of high lyricism, are what make poems worth reading; otherwise, they become simply machines or verbal exercise.
It is also unusual to find a book of poetry that is not explicitly “themed,” narratively or otherwise, that exhibits the degree of tonal cohesion found in The Usable Field. In this way, Mead finds her model in Louise Glück, who has always known how to materialize a mental state most symphonically in a succession of poems. The poems in The Usable Field unapologetically reflect emotional extremes (Mead addresses the heart directly, in a poem titled after it) as well as the slow deliberation attendant upon and constituting ratiocination. Mead heightens this effect by using a consciously anachronistic use of doubled punctuation such as a comma coupled with a dash; even the poems’ titles incorporate this strategy at times. “Same Audit, Same Sacrifice” is how one poem’s title encapsulates the book’s characteristic duality of shrewdness and lyric drama. In short, the impression we get is of something driven, something true: not “true” in a confessional sense, but true in the sense of Glück’s own argument “against sincerity.” The poems are not worked up; they give the impression of having emanated directly from a particular insistence of thought and -- much rarer -- of emotion as well, no matter how alloyed the nature of that emotion might be. It need hardly be said again that the effect here is often Dickinsonian.
“This is some chant I’m working at--” writes Mead in her book’s first line after its proem. Chant and work: two words that don’t necessarily dovetail in the mind of the reader. Yet Mead has coupled them in order to make a truer trajectory. I would also suggest that Mead “trues,” as carpentry, in the material, emotional, and intellectual senses. How beautifully she has inaugurated a collection that is so infused with the combined and paradoxical virtues of simplicity, lyricism, and unstinting thought.