In Review

Early Bird by Jean Day. O’Clock Press, 2014.

cover of Early Bird

Reviewed January 1, 2015 by Lisa Cattrone.

What to Expect When You’re Being Delivered

On Jean Day’s Early Bird

Never a pun, only the psychic markers of, no hero of the epic, only the feathered affect of what is heard and its never-ending estrangement, never just parataxis but that transitoriness of a multi-centered substance. And then again, none of this either. It feels okay though in Jean Day’s Early Bird to move around in the environment of everything that it’s not and I’m not sure asking for any kind of pinch-point or place of entry would serve a clear purpose for a reader willing to unravel with this text anyway. Not even the sentence itself could really be mistaken as an opening for thought’s taxonomy, as Day suggests, where the poem says of its reality “in which it’s nearly absurd for a bird / to be called even a momentary / nihilist / But that’s the way of the sentence” as it utilizes no period to suggest it’s real presence. The poem will give you the capitalized “B,” but as a reader, you can’t expect to have it all.

But if we can’t have the sentence (as often is the case), we can take refuge in the line as a leitmotif of a different kind. Jean Day reminds us of that with a pristine staccato of momentary presentations. No one does this better than Day. Each line presents itself as a gift wrapped in the moment given to it by the lines around it. It creates an effect of radiating movement beyond the line and so registers in a different place in the brain besides just where singularities might, maybe like how concentric circles would. Whether these concentric circles overlap as in the lines “I am your straw / to be seen layered / as in a topographical drawing / at a bend in the river road / over which wheels wheel / that don’t belong quite there / on the map” or whether instead, in waving into each other, create a wake as thoughts pass each other with greater speed upon an even plane as in the lines “I’d raise my knee / to love unenhanced / under the sign of the rainbow / trout / I run out I run out I run out” where there is the ever-present exasperation but also celebration of this particular kind of thought and its unrelenting unpacking of its own concept.

The conceit though, not just the line, also calls into its design the vessel of this endless melody, that heart “without fibrillation,” in its refusal of just moving one way along a plane. Because, in Early Bird, we are given the agency to slide along that one question, what came first, the chicken or the egg? in different directions such as perhaps what shows up after? or even what is in the extended aura of such a question? We can find within its surrounding nature an anti-naturalistic resource of redolent language reminiscent of Debussy as he is conjured in Early Bird, but also uniquely so and in opposition, as in the conjuring of Madame Thénardier, in the lines “hoard and tribute / to the Dr. Feel-Good / of Madame Seuss / at the end of the day” laying in the mixing of names themselves, “multiple mates.” But also, the interrogation from this angle, of free verse in a very direct way, as someone could ask do I hear a bird singing? Day asks “do I hear free verse” or rather, “America singing?” and must they be singing from the counter of that first meal of the day or equally, at the inheritance of lunch and its poems. Is the very design of our private heart’s song derivative of this seed and its virile impetus? Is there ever any way out of that question? Must that leitmotif make its insistent design as Wagner would have it, even over the characters of our living, breathing friends sitting at Brennan’s eating actual lunch (as Jean Day’s do in this book) or even upon the most private point of our own incubating and yolk-nourished heart? And again, in its insistence to also always say: and really, not that either, because the endlessness of Day’s truer question is, is this in fact really the question?

Day ends her book, alas, not with a prevailing question mark, but finally gives in and delivers the proper punctuation for a sentence but with a very insistent and sobering period. Because, at the end of the day, after all the designs of song and shape and defenses of poesy, there is a doubtfulness in the very substance suggested as a place for fertilization as a “...fatuous light / it was laid in / which about sums up / (sphincter-like) / the sovereignty of reason / its vulgar expression / by which I become / (sunsuit in transit) / completely incomplete / or modern.” What comes first is maybe just a question of what is modern, and maybe the transitory quality of “I” is nothing more but history’s hallucination. Perhaps what is being drawn down to us from the trees and the telephone wires is something that cracks and breaks through this language, this life’s design, as sudden and as an instantaneous female voice not necessarily completing all of this western trajectory.

This reading of Early Bird is all well and good, I suppose, in terms of discovering one perspective of the process of the text, but is that even what this text, after giving it its due attention, suggests we do with our thoughts about it? Embedded in the persistence of opposing elements existing in the cris-crossing waves of departure and arrival and the makings of thought out of or into traditions and history and the located “I,” aren’t we also able to find something begging us to move beyond the contained and singular habits of the mind in relation to its workings? This book (without meaning to hyperbolize) does seem to also evoke ideas on criticism as well, and traditions of criticism and so again the conceit can be uprooted and transfixed upon yet another plane of distinction. In the making of our early morning songs, can we act looking out from the poem? or looking in, or maybe even which of these came first? “with a finger to prove / what eye is this / that looks in my heart / and writes?”

Jean Day’s Early Bird, through its impeccable manipulation of the line as well as layering effects of sound, thought, form and historical processes of aestheticism and critical analysis, has developed a unique way of questioning by questioning first and then negating it as a valid form of inquiry after, or vice versa, through an ever-grounding insistence of female impetus in opposition to what it conjures, that moves in unusual waves of amplification. Questions form in a widening platform and flexing surface of the existence of expansive thought as though flying down as we awaken, and from it, a place forms for the insistence of a period to stamp its indelible mark, sticking its landing perfectly, with confidence, but necessarily on new ground.

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Lisa Cattrone studied at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her work can be found in journals such as Chicago Review and Lemon Hound, among others. Her chapbook Mutations for Jenny was published by Horse Less Press. Her first full length collection of poetry entitled Last Year’s Schizo is forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press.