My Enemies by Jane Gregory

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What is the continuous that people keep wanting to write about it? Continuously writing. Like an ocean is continuous or the sky is continuous, and certain poets have taken it on themselves to write continuously, though every books ends. It’s the nature of books. It’s the nature of human attention as well. We have a finite attention. And yet the possibility that we could extend how we see what we see continuously with the same uninterrupted attention, our attention spanning the ocean, the uninterruption of sky, the earth as we could see it floating in outer space, where objective reality is continuous, effortlessly continuous, this kind of attention is pleasure. It is the infinite portion of the Entertainment in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

It is the ambitious infinite that many poets attempt to stylize in their verse. Whether it’s the surging, subtly surprising, infinitely continuing present in Brandon Shimoda’s Portuguese or the paradoxical, infinitely regressing image of a forest in Michelle Taransky’s Sorry Was in the Woods or the continuously qualified, infinitely reconsidered perpetual rhetoric in Paul Killibrew’s Ethical Consciousness. And these are only a small sampling of how our attention, that fine commodity of the Information Age, has been played out in some of the poetry published in 2013.

Where does Jane Gregory’s My Enemies fit into that? “This is the sound of the sun on a loop” says the first line of her book. Which is a way of imaging the infinite. Meaning, if you were asked to imagine that asymptotic moment that is “approaching infinity yet not quite reaching infinity,” the moment of almost infinite attention, you might use the sun, a looping image of the sun, because the sun is powerful and big. So big, ancient people, when they were trying to comprehend an all-encompassing power, made the sun one of their go-to’s. They used the ocean, too. And the sky. Which should make it no surprise that Gregory describes the sun, and the ocean, and the sky like they were infinite.

But Gregory’s depiction of the infinite present comes not only in image. It is in formal mechanics found in the poem “Several Mornings at Once / Give the Lie to the Notion Beyond It,” where pieces of a poem are arranged vertically or horizontally or in 8-point font. The present isn’t uniform! Don’t tie it down! It is in the intention of writing anything at all, like having multiple instances of a poem titled “Book I Will Not Write.” Does that sound like a contradiction? A paradox? A maybe-too-much-cutesy-on-the-concept-of-written-language-front? It could be, if you weren’t Jane Gregory. How about this from “Because We Had Spoken of a Garden They Thought We Were in It”:

remember looking forward to
correctly write the end of a world is to
end the world, stop nothing
starting no settled faith in the rapture
while settled the raptor down on the lawn
and did not crush the earthworms

How many times are there in this quote of the poem? There is the end of the world as a subject, there is the writing of that future end as an act that happens in the present, there is reference to that troublesome continuous present of faith.

This book review is starting to sound very complicated, isn’t it. Welcome to Jane Gregory, friends. And if you’re still reading at this point, the infinite is only the beginning. Which might be intimidating. But for the poetry readers who love indeterminacy or inscrutability or insolvency in their poems intimidation is more like invitation. Why be intimidated by the feast Gregory’s book represents? Ever want to read a funny parable about how the author of a book was incriminated for physiologically changing people by posing questions to them? Then read the fifth instance of “Book I Will Not Write.” Gregory is full steam ahead. She is paradoxes in your pockets. And it all fits together, because it feels like the speaker is overwhelmed by the desire to put everything relevant in one book, and she wants you to realize overwhelmedness with her.

And though I feel like I could rest this review as an enthusiastic consideration of Gregory thinking through overwhelmedness, there is something else at play here. There is something interrupting that infinite sentiment. It could be an outside figure (the Officer that comes up in “Nope / Open,” it could be the B.F. in “Advance Praise for the B.F. Poems”). It could be the many references to faith, and the natural inference that faith would be interrupted by doubt. I value this book for the logical framework, I’m just not sure what exactly is being framed. Is it the Derridaean differance moment, where the impulse to speak is inevitably interrupted / unnaturally concluded by the creation of language? Consider Gregory’s use of puns, or the confusion of grammar. Since when is language really the match for intent? But maybe language and Derrida would be too easy a match. Perhaps My Enemies is more about the contradictory nature of faith, i.e. faith can only be substantially real to the faithful when it is likely to fail them. Read poem titles like “Faith in the Never Beyond, in Other Words, Guncotton” or “How We Became Beyond Faith / Inexplanation.” Read all the contradictory titles. Which is as much to say, “Read Jane Gregory’s My Enemies if you’re a proponent of thinking!”

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →