It’s easy to read a book by Jennifer L. Knox and imagine all the characters between the front and back covers living in the same world, if not in the same town. This feeling is strongest in Days of Shame & Failure (Bloof Books, forthcoming 2015), Knox’s fourth and maybe most heartbreaking book to date. The characters Knox illuminates here (Marilyn in “Life’s Work,” Tommy in “A Fairy Tale,” unnamed I’s) are all bound together by various forms of shame and/or failure. And by extension, Knox, with her characteristic use of dark humor, holds a mirror up to us as readers. Some of these poems are gut-bustingly funny, some are sniffle-worthy, but most are even better: a combination of both. Knox isn’t so much keeping her finger on the pulse of life in America as she is speaking from it: that is to say, through saying a lot, trying to figure it out along with the rest of us (whatever “it” is).
While many of Knox’s speakers are misfits of some sort, Knox herself has appeared more and more in poems, an autobiographical impulse that is not so much confessional as it is a means to ground us amongst the more absurd situations Knox’s speakers get into, such as the corporate lawyer in “Between Menus” who talks to bees or the old volunteer clown who sodomizes a Siberian tiger in “I Cast the Shadow of a Sword over Sky & Sea.”
Knox achieved this grounding beautifully with “Cars,” a prose poem sequence in her previous book, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway (“I couldn’t imagine what he was going to do to me when I turned the engine off and got out. But he only asked, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’ and shut the door behind him.” p. 35). In Days of Shame & Failure, that grounding element is more spread throughout the book. In “I Want to Speak to the Manager,” Knox writes: “Promises are no longer made to me because I’m a middle-aged person. / People stop bothering to lie to you once you’ve been lied to as many times as I have” (p. 17). In “Annie’s Song,” the speaker tells us:
I’d performed a balance beam routine to [“Annie’s Song”] in junior high school.
The other girls had all picked harder songs like “My Sharona”
and “We Will Rock You.” I thought choosing John Denver meant
I was different—more genteel. And I was different: I looked like
the fat kid in Bad Santa, and they looked like porn stars. I must’ve
looked especially dumb in my sagging white tube socks: mouth
open, looking down the entire time but still about to fall. (p. 72)
Through these heartbreaking observations Knox bluntly relays shame and failure in the present tense (age), past tense (appearance). In “Caring for Your New Perm,” the most somber poem in the book, Knox shares shame/failure even with her own occupation as a poet:
I started to write a poem about
giving a dog a perm. It was really
about how the need to control people
is as absurd as forcing an animal to be
something other than it is: putting tiny
high heels on a bird, etc. The dog wanted
dreadlocks so the speaker—a “we”—
shaved its head. That’s where I stopped.
“I’m afraid for that dog,” I thought
on my way down to the basement
to load the wet laundry in the dryer.
Suddenly, I wanted to tell you how much
I love you, to apologize for the notes
stuck to your bathroom mirror, the frantic
green exclamation points. I was afraid for
you like I was that dog. Upstairs, I erased
the lines and listened to the laundry spin—
heating up. Why, oh, why won’t
you listen to me? (p. 75)
The speaker is attempting to write a poem about shame– feeling shame for having a dog’s head shaved in a poem, erasing the lines about the dog (thus failing to write the poem)– the failure of “you” to listen to the speaker, etc. Knox has a sympathetic ear to the theme of the book. She’s not trying to point a finger or assign blame to some singular object because she knows that we’re all caught up with her in these days.
Knox infuses all 85 pages here with an energy uniquely her own. Whether it’s descriptions like “[w]orn brown shoe heel like a sturdy ass on a barstool” (p. 74) or conversations with characters who say things like, “That’s not George Jones. It’s Deinocheirus mirificus. Archaeologists recently found him in the Gobi desert. I heard about it on NPR” (p. 11), it’s easy to tag-along with Knox’s speakers because of the richness of language at play.
It’s also easy because some of these speakers are also us, people we know, people we don’t know, but whose lives are not a stretch to imagine. Despite the theoretical implications of the absurd / real binary (i.e., one is “good” one is “bad”), Knox seems to say that both sides are affected by the same thing: there’s no escape from failure of some sort for Knox’s speakers, including herself. Knox reminds us that we’re all in it together and sometimes the only thing we can do is keep going.
Nate Logan was born and raised in Indianapolis, IN. His work has appeared in BOAAT, Ghostwriters of Delphi, and glitterMOB among others. He’s a contributor to _____ On Sports and chief editor of Spooky Girlfriend Press.