About ten years ago, I was in the habit of noting when and where I acquired my books. I'd jot down the month/year and the city on the inside of the back cover. Somewhere along the way, I dropped the habit, and now I wish I hadn't. I'm no longer sure when I started reading Jane Mead's poetry, but I have her first two collections well-earmarked: The Lord and the General Din of the World (Winner of the 1995 Kathryn A Morton Prize) and House of Poured-Out Waters. This week, I bought and read, devoured really, her third book, The Usable Field.
Mead comes closest to being the poet I wish I were today. As one of her blurb writers, Alan Williamson, describes it, "Confessional detail and philosophical argument are reduced to traces, but their resonance from underneath leaves no doubt that this work is serious." As I've been sifting through the poems in my new manuscript, I am haunted by the question: Is this too personal, too confessional? Mead builds beautiful poems that are clearly based on her real-world experiences and the truths she has discovered; however, the poems rarely reveal anything personal. How does she do it? Vexing.
Here is the opening of "Sister Harvest Brother Blues"
Because there is no earth-light,
because there is none other, we remain
wayward and hampered. No one
will be going this day with us.
The main force is the usable field
or sun on the useless bunchgrass,--
Here is the opening of "With No Praise from the Far Dark Reaches"
I believe in the horse and the marshes--I believe
in the crow,--talisman of apple tree and pear.
I believe in the wall. This wall and the other.
Did I say the willow? I believe the willow
knows what the dead know, passing over.
Many of the poems have the feel of the elegiac, and several of the poems reference "the dead." Those of you who have read my recent poems might have seen me do the same. In fact, as I began reading Mead's book, my little inner critic-demon was chirping away that Mead was doing what I'd set out to do and much better.
Most of Mead's poems in The Usable Field are short, intense, contained. They are largely one page or less, with a few exceptions. I have to admit that I favor the short poem. I've never had the attention span necessary for lengthier works. Mead manages that great trick of poetry, compression, with masterful force.
I'm grateful for another distant mentor.