Why I Chose Jena Osman’s The Network for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club

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Rumpus Poetry Editor Brian Spears on why he chose Jena Osman’s The Network as the fourth selection of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club.

I knew almost from the moment I first opened The Network that I wanted it for the Poetry Book Club. I wanted it even though I wasn’t sure anyone in the Book Club would like it; I wanted it even though I wasn’t completely sure it was poetry, or that others would recognize it as such. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I wanted it for those reasons, not in spite of them. This book is so different from what I usually read that I knew I wanted to share it with other readers, and that I wanted to go through it with them.

This is a book that’s interested in words–their origins, their evolutions, the connections between them. Sometimes Osman plays with their sounds: “What will I find there, in the knot and twine, the nylon seine. The mistake shows the way” from the first poem(?) in the book. And often she offers diagrams of words from their roots. On page 5 she shows how paciscere becomes peace, pageant, paginate, impact and propaganda, and then follows with this:

Although the word “peace” came into its current form in 1358, one book states that it wasn’t really “established” until 1500. What went on in the world as it flexed from one spelling toward another. What kind of campaign. Derivatives include appease and pay.

It’s the flexing that Osman seems to be most interested in, the way words bend toward and away from each other over time, and the ways they connect in multiple ways. The Network isn’t linear–it branches, and we get to follow Osman’s thought processes as she explores all these pathways, even those that don’t seem to lead anywhere. In the third section, titled “Network 3: The Franklin Party,” Osman recounts an earlier failed attempt at dealing with this material.

1989. I return to the mystery of Franklin, researching the details. I meet with a dancer and a puppeteer about a possible collaboration. I outline a script that combines the imagined party of Franklin with the imagined party of boat-bound characters depicted in max Beckmann’s painting “the Cabins.” The project never gets off the ground. Textual remnants are awful, embarrassing, should be burned.

From this, Osman brings in Ron Silliman and his book The New Sentence, the lack of planning for the Iraq War and the faulty assumptions which accompanied it, Franklin’s career “confirming the edges of the British Empire,” the policy of transporting convicts to the colonies, Charles DIckens and Hans Christian Andersen, and cannibalism. And I’m only scratching the complex surface of this single network.

There aren’t many places in this book where I can point to individual poems, and yet I can’t deny the poetic nature of the book as a whole. It doesn’t look like poetry, and at times it doesn’t even sound like poetry, but the connections it makes and the way it envelopes me in language convinces me it can’t be anything but poetry.

About a week ago, Nancy Lili Gonzalez stole a little of my thunder by gushing over this book in the blog, but that’s okay, because I completely get where she’s coming from. I had the same experience when I opened the book. I hope the members of the club have it as well.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →