Meridian by Kathleen Jesme

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This fascinating chapbook leaps to mind on my daily walk through Smith College, when I stop to watch a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey, called “Four Lines Oblique Gyratory Rhombus.” It has four rotating blades on a post, moving and constantly creating new shapes in response to the movement of air.

Meridian is a complex word sculpture of straight lines on a white page, and also arcs; a narrative arc and arcs through time. Meridians can be defined as lines on a body (acupuncture points), and they turn up in mathematics and astronomy. Here, the lines are ideas and wind is feeling.

This is winter poetry, located in the white space season of death, cold and absence. White space is where poets begin, and we use it as much as we use words and the shapes made by letters. Jesme’s use of white space evokes blinding snow, and the treacherous ice-covered roads through it.

The narrative arc is the decline and death of the speaker’s beloved mother from dementia. Meridian is one long poem with numbered sections and several clarifying prose sections. This structure serves to ground the reader in the speaker’s grief and on a parallel plane sketches intersecting ideas and lines. Here the speaker offers one definition of meridians:

Made by the eyes, looking, the observer, seeing:

a line that passes through
all of us, our poles.

And elsewhere, a merging of landscape (trees) and poetry:

Somewhere along the line of trees
something
changes
into language.

The street her mother lived on forms another kind of line, where ice becomes part of the roadway, flattened by cars.

Traveling north again, into winter, she walks
through small towns on the edge
of extinction, wind scrubbing
paint from buildings
that lean forward
to listen.

In the black distance a single light,
rectangle of an open door.

Sparse and piercing, these following three lonely lines join, in an imagistic triumph, the visual perception of where earth meets the sky to the unambiguous straight line from birth to death:

See the horizon line there?
Curve or edge?
For her, edge.

Kathleen JesmeThe pulse of the book is the daughter’s love, made palpable in a number of ways, predominantly thorough music. From one of the prose sections:“ I played her piano, badly, old tunes by ear—and my mother, in the other room, without opening her eyes, lifted her arms and began to conduct the music, her habit as the church choir director, My sister watched her while I played so she could remember. But it was easier to sing. I could sit beside her and watch her face, hold her hand.”

Later in the volume, silence:

Musics invariably clash but so do
silences.

The middle sphere echoes with their disparate,
far-flung ringing.

Pressed forward by sound and held back
by the gaps between the notes

variation and theme coerce time.

Jesme’s interrogation of white space continues throughout. With great care and precision, she opens space in the ground: for her mother’s grave and for the replanting of forty trees torn out behind her house for a huge pit which will become a sewer line for the town.

And as the daughter’s love is the book’s pulse, her grief is audible as quick shallow breaths. Unforgettably, like a punch in the solar plexus, this is grief:

White dog in winter:
his bark is all that’s
visible

Meridian’s kinetic sculpture of ideas and feeling, line and wind, works beautifully. It will work its way under your skin.


Ellen Miller-Mack has an MFA in Poetry from Drew University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 5 A.M., Valparaiso Poetry Review, Rattle, Verse Wisconsin and Bookslut. She co-wrote The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press) and is a nurse practitioner/primary care provider at a community health center in Springfield, Massachusetts. More from this author →