by Jena Strong
reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa (InfiniteBody)
The photo on the back of poet Jena Strong's Don't Miss This shows her amusingly askew but forward, a woman with a wry smirk, scrinched up eyes, dynamic asymmetry. She looks like a rascal--fun, smart, trouble. Maybe the trouble first. I discover that she has named her WordPress blog Bullseye, Baby! and, like any other blog name, there must be one hell of a story in that and that might become clear later, but it certainly fits the face.
On Bullseye, Baby!, I'm greeted by a photo portrait of Strong that spans the top banner. Only it's sideways--or, I guess, she was lying down--and the radical cropping and narrowness of it hems her in. I get, right away, that any kind of cropping or narrowing or hemming in does not go well with the energy emanating from this personality. So that banner photo is a little disturbing.
Looking further afield--because photos, and peering into them, beyond the surface image, matter to me--I discover someone else's blog (name now forgotten) that features an interview with Strong and a small photo of her rocking what might be some kind of yoga pose. It's a jaunty and, yep, sideways position. What the...?
Strong's self-published Don't Miss This, a memoir in poetry, confirms these initial impressions of the irrepressible. The Vermont-based writer shares intimate material--the stuff of everyday family life, the arc of relationships, the potentially disruptive discovery of self--yet she is never insular. A child and woman of the world, she always has its often troubling conditions on her mind even as she keeps her beloved daughters in sight ("This is the Faith"). Her work is as confident, brazen even, in its universal vision and embrace as anything by Walt Whitman. In poem after poem, she balances an honest inward insight and familial gaze with an instinctual and easygoing connection to the natural world, the seasons and timelessness. Inside poems like "The Clearing," she embeds that comfy, rural sense of having all the time in the world with a darker awareness of time passing--with a river's breadth and heedlessness--out of one's control. In poems like "Always is Never True," it's clear that she chooses to understand herself as a force of nature, too.
A prelude--entitled Prelude--pulls us into Strong's world. She gives us the image of two Northern cardinals singing to each other. From that avian backdrop, we anticipate a human conversation that will possess, because it is human, a greater capacity for freedom, nuance and...unraveling. And so Strong, in tears, speaks of "...the space I wedged open/contracting" and concludes (her thought and her poem), "It's anyone's guess."
Don't Miss This traces a history of heterosexual love, marriage and parenting and the sudden realization that she is--to use Strong's word--"gay" that upended everything.
She is an engaging, captivating storyteller. Some of her moments made me catch my breath because...well, because they are sudden and so very there. In "Wingspan," for instance, she writes of "my enormous wingspan cramped, contained," and I flashed back to the energy captured in her photos. "Moon Dates" is--can I just say it?--perfect. A perfect Jena Strong poem. Lucid, poignant, full of imagery and feeling. I wanted to find someone to read it to. "Open Door," with its opening, swaying, swinging, many things saying hello, holds loveliness, an invitation.
Each of the book's three sections opens with a poem written by another author. Linda Pastan's haunting "What We Want" ("We don't remember the dream,/but the dream remembers us./It is there all day as an animal is there/under the table....") leads off everything before I/She Who Stays lines up behind Anna Swir's "Myself and My Person." II/Land Mine, which tracks the difficult aftermath of Strong's self-revelation and coming out--is prefaced by Yeats' "Second Coming," an extreme and awkward choice. As it happens, this section, devoted to Strong's rockiest times, contains the book's least accomplished work. III/What I'll Miss, introduced by David Whyte's deceptively simple, gorgeous "The Journey," presents weightier, denser, frankly better crafted work. Here Strong gives us a visceral sense of what it means to deal head on with what truth leaves in its wake. Her storyteller's voice returns in trusty coherence. Wearier, heavier, it is nevertheless back in full force.
Late in this section, in "What I'll Miss," while musing on what it might be like to leave this earth and her loved ones for good, she once again offers the invitation to not miss
Your shame, all those momentsFor more information and to purchase Don't Miss This, click here, or visit:
when you wanted to hide,
to disappear, to retract and retreat--
these are your gifts.
Look inside. Don't run.
You will find me here,
find yourself here, exposed,
clear as moonstone
letting the light through.
Don't miss this, I'll whisper.
Don't miss this.