Equivalents by Jessica Baran

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While carrying our obligations like so many oft-told fairy tales, this is when the the numbness solidifies. We need to keep up on yard work, need to watch that TV show, need to present the same picture of stability to the outside world. Are we okay? Is this okay? We’ve done what has been asked of us. What now?

The project has been identified; it’s called: please listen to me. What is the nature of your time — considerate, sportive?
— from “On Dailiness #14”

In Equivalents, Jessica Baran’s prose poems chip away at our disconnect and our self-imposed loneliness. She examines our habits, both unconscious and deliberate, and tries to make sense of the stories we tell ourselves. Her words are honest: at once soothing and uncomfortable.

The title taken from a collection of Alfred Stieglitz photographs, Equivalents presents itself in three sections: “On Dailiness,” “On Dissonance,” and “Panorama.” Baran is economical with her words, but the way in which she chooses them suggests scenes as vast as a “great painting.” The book’s closing section may talk about a specific mural and its viewership, but the images leading to it are no less artful. How do we experience the world? All these people flitting about, doing what they have to do — What is behind that? she asks.

Telling this story is easy. Directives and disclosures — all a matter of small differences.
— “On Dissonance #8”

Coming upon Christmas and reading her book for the second time, I am struck by the thought of tradition. Setting up a tree, making certain foods, having all things “just so” — The weight of these actions varies from person to person. Baran talks about the “anxiety in correspondence,” and I think about all the times we go along with what has “always been this way” because it’s easier than having a difficult conversation with our mothers. Or admitting to ourselves that we are too tired to carry on with the fullness to which we once aspired.

More than anything, Equivalents feels like a plea for pause, for contemplation. When faced with anxiety, I wish to power through it, yet I also yearn to turn off my brain for a little while so I can reemerge once the trouble has passed.

And that’s
what people wanted:
to be absent and present at once.
— from “Panorama #2”

Yes, I’m well familiar with the urge to hide away while still wishing to be in the thick of it — whatever “it” is. Baran’s poems explore the many “its” of daily life and how we determine our focus. Are we good enough? What does love mean? The anxiety she speaks of is quiet; it is the duck paddling on a still pond.

Equivalents lends itself well to rereading, for the time in which it is read will inspire different connections. What strikes me in December is not the same as my first reading over this past summer. There are gems on every numbered page.

What remained to be written? The true story of hard campaigning.
— “On Dailiness #17”

Sara Habein is the editor of Electric City Creative and the author of Infinite Disposable. Her work has appeared on Pajiba, Persephone Magazine, and The Rumpus, among others. More from this author →