Review by Mindy Kronenberg
Jennifer Jean’s new collection of poems, a powerful memoir of both dispirited and defiant vignettes, captures the wistful journey of seeking connection to one’s origins, obtaining a sense of belonging, and enduring the emotional dissonance of the disenfranchised in a promised land of perfect families and glittering landscapes.
Jean’s personal narratives—many encompassing the pain of an early life without family stability– interwoven with societal messages of ferocious cheerfulness– are summoned by what she terms “saturations”—the ekphrastic summoning of intimate episodes from an immersion into musical selections (popular tunes that are listed with notes in the back of the book). There are familiar songs like “Desperado,” “Human Nature” and “Against the Wind,” that rouse poetry of yearning and persistence. Her parentage is elusive and nearly mythic— her father appears in anecdotes and dreams, and we learn of his personal struggle in “The Doors of Perception,”(p.1) where we are told “My father leapt on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl/to grab drum & cymbal sticks/from a star—he wanted to be/ a star, a door, a Door, White. Security/ thugs dragged him off..,” and later:
He found a motel room door, particle door, & shut it
on all that he owned
for fifty years. He lived there, adding up the primary colors
hour to hour in Bliss Consciousness—
crossing his legs on the bed, letting electric snow
hush the TV. Hush
blood. He forgot his father’s father’s Cabo Verde
& let himself be Italian there—
a different kind of Venetian—because who he really was was
too close to black.
The poet’s mother makes an appearance, with a hint of some backstory, in “The Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow Tree,” (p.6):
Beach drives with bench seats & no buckles meant
four kids in back & two up front
with mom & her nursing school textbooks. Meant mom
yelling, “Why am I driving! Where’re the moms!” &
I’d think, where are the dads? (But, then—
I never thought that. Dad-less-ness was a given
In our building). We’d head back to our building
so she could skip out to some swing shift, some comedy
At intervals she includes poems written in the form of haibun, a block of prose poetry that finishes in a haiku. The effect is interesting visually as well as linguistically—where many of the poems in VOZ spread raucously across the page, untethered flourishes of longing, declarations, and admonishments, these square cinematic narratives sit on the page with a certain gravity, at a glance impenetrable but opening to a “stoop” of lines that encapsulate the interior experience of the piece. “Com Que Voz,” (p.16 ) which is also an homage to the wistful Portuguese music of Fado (and its well-known songstress, Amalia Rodrigues) is contrasted here with the forced cheerfulness of holiday radio selections:
…Here is a new disk, ‘cause I wore out the last letting her sing Com que voz chorarei meu triste fado…? Over & over, Here is the voice of fado. Backtracked by my phlegmy sighs, Scenes from my sad, Angeleno fate sliding by. Chromatic: “There are the foster parents. There is my (passive) vengeance.” Sebastian says, her constant key changes make sorrow into an awful joy. But—Today is Christmas. & her song’s a well-worn, shitty road.
But another temperament takes over—“Time to turn down Amalia (for now). Turn up the radio’s Mame tune, the frantic Need a Little Christmas! Right this very minute!..” and a memory of shared silliness of dancing and singing to “Make sorrow wait on a cold road— a bit. …”
Ultimately, the spirit of VOZ is one of defiance, persistence, and promise, stated eloquently in “Inspiration Point; Pacific Palisades” (p, 21), an actual and metaphorical place of arrival:
We’d stare at horses at Will Rogers Park, then hike
the Loop Trail to Inspiration Point, &
I’d lag back
to be a kid. Alone. & under that aloofness—hid
vengeance. The salt
dripping through chaparral
brows, into my brown lashes.
& under that—anxiety. A rusty burr or two
in my left sneaker. & under
that—rage. A perfectly purple
shell some kid favored & lost.
& under that—hope. The pounded
ground. & under that—a vast
clearing on the cosmos…
The poems in VOZ create a profound songbook that distills defiance from despair, and is a testament to the poet’s tenacious voice.
VOZ by Jennifer Jean
Lily Poetry Review Books, 2023
Mindy Kronenberg is an award-winning poet and writer with numerous publication credits world-wide. She teaches writing, literature, and arts subjects at SUNY Empire State University, is the editor of Oberon poetry magazine, and the author of Dismantling the Playground (Birnham Wood), Images of America: Miller Place (Arcadia), and OPEN, an illustrated poetry book (Clare Songbirds Publishers).