Joie de Vivre: Selected Poems 1992–2012 by Lisa Jarnot

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Born in 1967, Lisa Jarnot has been publishing books of her poetry for nearly half her life. Her first selected poems, Joie de Vivre offers an ample slice of her varied work. Jarnot’s dexterity with poetic form is rampantly displayed throughout, from the visual collage enhanced prose poems of Some Other Kind of Mission which open the book, on up to the celebrative, roomily spaced round the page, and likewise collaged (?) lengthy new poem “Amedellin Cooperative Nosegay” which closes it. In between these two fairly experimental, at times quite dense offerings is presented a broad swath of poems representing Jarnot at her more familiar, relaxed and colloquial best.

There’s a pop-Romanticism, American to the core, behind the majority of Jarnot’s most easily enjoyable verse. As in one of her more recent poems, when addressing one of Britain’s most honored poets, “O rare Ben Johnson, do you/not know strife?” Jarnot’s lines can’t help but resemble a more sentimentalizing version of Frank O’Hara than anything close to English Renaissance style: “Have you/not got topping on your cake, no/ holes inside your shirt?” (“The Oldest Door in Britain”) This sort of breezy self-confidence is not as rigidly preoccupied with avoiding a loose musicality. Many readers may find this trying, perhaps too trotted out already by numerous others, yet that judgment arrives too quick, failing appreciate how past pursuits have made her comfortable with such exploitation. When Jarnot’s poems lean towards lighter fare they’re only blowing off steam built up during heftier ventures. In the end, nothing’s too loose or left unaccounted. As a poet, she’s moved through several transfigurations, always working the poem hard. If it seems too easy at first, you’re rushing along too fast with your reading.

It’s in the early/middle work, primarily from the collection Ring of Fire that Jarnot’s work shines. With brilliance of speed, she hits an easily assured stride, locating delight in the quick zipping sound of words. Busy pontificating nonsensically while riding hard on the shrill nature of absurdity:

…abstractions of chinchilla, aperitif
chinchilla, lowing in the headlands in my mind,
dark, the cliffs of dover, dark chinchilla, tractor
of chinchilla, chili of chinchilla, chill of the
chinchilla, crosswalk of chinchilla in the dawn

(“Song of the Chinchilla”)

In these instances, there’s a kind of dream zone where into the reader enters with Jarnot trusting her instincts to guide the way. Poem after poem alights upon sets of descriptions perfectly fit for situating readers for new visions of the way the world is. Any answers provided in the poems prove to be only provisional markers leading to further provisional markers, delimiting a space of existing within the fragmentary moment in which the poem unfurls. Again and again, encountering images of scenes which raggedly persist in calling to mind the world in which we live while not getting mired down in dwelling there permanently. These poems orbit day to day reality on paths based off non sequiturs and randy loop de loops.

Because the tree and the root and the worm and the corn are all words. Because the words are all friends with the worm and the friend of the tree. Because some words they grew up. Because some words they grew up smarter. Because it’s time to cut the trees. Because they were tree-cutters. Because they were hungry tree-cutters in a hurry. Because they were careless tree-cutters.

(“Because Poem”)


I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront and all the boats all know me, I am the foreignist of birds and the shadows of sails upon martinis, I am underwater buying jam and drinking stolen coffee, I am pelagic now and sober, having recently discovered all the birds.

(“from Sea Lyrics”)

Later poems show Jarnot is a bit more reflective, older. She’s had to grapple with life decisions extending beyond the moment of the poem. The lines are less rapid, less caught up in their own activity and more directly a registering of where she’s at personally. She acknowledges she would prefer “normal shit/like a normal person” (“What I Want to Do”) like any of us she yearns for less of life’s accompanying hassles, but also knows poetry has its way with poets. Best not to plan on too often experiencing “the greatest waves of/happiness this sixth day of July.” (“Self Portrait”) Although when they do come be ready for them, getting the poem down that lies in back of so many of such wonders abounding in life’s experience. She learned early on that it is in such moments that poetry may act as a locating force, compelling greater recognition of times past and present.

That in January, I met him in a bar, we went
home together, there was a lemon tree in the back yard,
and a coffee house where we stood outside and kissed,

That I have never been there, curiously, and that it never was
the same, the whole of the island, or the paintings of the stars,
fatherly, tied to sparrows as they drop down from the sky

O rattling frame where I am, I am where there are still
these assignments in the night, to remember the texture
of the leaves on the locust trees in August, under the
moonlight, rounded, through a window in the hills

(“The Bridge”)

Jarnot brings her whole heart to bear upon her poems. Note: she does not bare her whole heart. She’s been around poets and poetry long enough to know that only the rawest, least fabricated of tension between life and art offers up worthwhile goods. The poet must be willing to put everything up without expectation (and more often than not little to no reward). Only with the practice of poetry does that old adage “nothing comes of nothing” get flipped on its head. Nothing does in fact come of something: that “something” being the poet who 9 times out of 10 gets nothing in return for many hours of grueling task work performed at the behest of her art, an incredibly unfair system of exchange. Jarnot nonetheless has kept up her end and shows no signs of stopping. Joie de Vivre is promising evidence of her talented efforts and will prove no doubt to be but a partial glimpse of her whole life’s work.

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →