Laura Jensen’s Memory begins with the eponymous poem about a falconer, whose falcon flies after its prey and doesn’t return until evening, surprising its master when it lands in the window clutching its prize. The poem ends with a lovely figure that I extend to her poetry’s effect on me:
Like memory, it
returned when it was unexpected.
Like memory, it is a weight on the arm,
missed sorely when it is missing.
I read Memory for the first time about a week after returning home from a poetry conference mentally and morally exhausted. Reading through the book, I felt Jensen’s poems were familiar, loved and at the same time completely new and needed. By their kindness and their curious depth of human feeling and thought, Jensen’s poems cut through the business and career-making that had worn me down during the conference. The book helped me refocus on what is necessary and essential to writing while allowing me to ignore the rest.
Jensen’s poems are intricate, evocative and surprising in their turns of thought. The fabric and material of the lines electrify. Her poems are places where the lips of a woman are “red like alleys/ of cardinals, eyes are green/ like alleys of bamboo.” Jensen makes hairpin turns of figure and image at breakneck speed and yet retains enough control to make each image crisp, clear and haunting as the reader passes by.
For me as a writer, her poetry is paradoxically generative because it stuns the part of the brain that immediately reaches for analysis. The poems stand in a delicate position where remove any line, any metaphor or preposition and the poem falls flat and loses its magic. The poems force you to experience them in their sensuousness. For example, read the middle stanza of “Starlings”:
[The starlings] have always just sprung from some horn
of plenty, they hop like rabbits,
like a gang of kids. As they pound
up to the trees they are like a veil
trailing, a veil you pray beneath.
They are like prayers for the lifting
of that veil. They are not beautiful.
Whether it is the kaleidoscopic use of figure, the structural repetition of what “they” are or do, or the beautiful in-rhymes, the poem overwhelms the senses and invites the reader to read it over and over again like running a finger over an intricately wrought pendant. Despite rereading this poem many times, the experience of the poem remains exciting because of the dance your mind must perform when reading it.
The subject matter of Memory is intimate and particular and yet the writing is never insular or claustrophobic. Among other things, Jensen writes about a memory of her father at the toy store, giving finches to a woman on the bus, the Creature From The Black Lagoon, and fables about women. In her hands, none of it feels small. Quite the opposite, she makes the mundane world of objects and daily chores into a place of great beauty and relation. She animates objects and actions making them interact as though they are strange but friendly neighbors. Perhaps, this is her best gift, a way to translate our ever-present attachments and relationships to the world at the most basic level.
Jensen has been out of the poetry world for nearly three decades. Memory was published in 1985 and was Jensen’s last published book of poems. Her last two books were published through small presses with a small number of books printed, making her books hard to find and sometimes very expensive. Despite her withdrawal from poetry and from the circuit of honors and readings, her poems persist. I was recommended her poems by peers and professors. When Brigit Pegeen Kelly visited my campus, she told me to read every book written by Laura Jensen. Jensen’s poems find a way to be read in the face of many forces that should have made her obscure. For me, it is an assurance that good writing will find its readers. I’ll end by passing on the advice given to me by so many. You need to read Laura Jensen.