I don’t know when I’ve encountered a poet with more aesthetic range than Jessica Jacobs. Her dazzling debut collection, Pelvis with Distance, epitomizes both what is possible and what is desirable in not one but five distinct poetic forms: the confessional poem, the persona poem, the nature poem, the epistolary poem, and the ekphrastic poem. In other words, no matter who you are, you will not want for anything in this book. And that’s even before I tell you that Pelvis with Distance is also an elegantly braided, tripartite love story in which you will find yourself, inevitably, implicated.
At the outset, you’re probably thinking, “This is a poetic biography of the personal and professional relationship between painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz.” You think this because of the art work on the front cover (Stieglitz’s simultaneously sensuous and austere photograph of O’Keeffe’s jawline and clavicles, titled “Neck—1921”) and because of the genre designations on the back cover (“Poetry/Biography.”) You are not wrong. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz shared an intricate history as artists, lovers, and spouses, and their relationship, in and of itself, is a worthy subject for a poet like Jacobs to plumb.
For instance, in the poem “Coney Island, 1917,” she places these historical subjects in a particular place, at a given time, designating in lieu of epigraph: “O’Keeffe, with Stieglitz.” Then, from O’Keeffe’s perspective, Jacobs renders a portrait of emerging desire, in lines as delicate as they are diligent: “With the heat, something/ surfaces. We walk; I listen; I talk// when seems called for, but all the while it/ rests in my chest: not love, exactly—not//yet—but wanting, purely felt. He touches/ my shoulder, steers me to the moment//the diving coaster car meets its shadow,/ and my ribs compress around breath.”
As you read deeper into this book, you will no doubt recognize that what you hold in your hands is also an exploration—in the form of an earnest articulation—in the form of field-notes-qua-homage—of the poet’s own symbolic and spiritual love affair with the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Jacobs’ is no mere “study,” no mere “treatment” of this artist’s life and work, but a relationship the present-day poet has forged with the artist (1887-1986) through keen and devoted immersion in her letters, diaries, paintings, and photographs.
In one touching and plainspoken poem, Jacobs’ speaker addresses O’Keeffe directly: “I was six when you died.// Is that why it’s so hard to see you/ as anything but outside of time?” After a litany of questions, the speaker summons her courage to pose the crucial one, the question she has been yearning to pose all along: “Would you have liked me?” It is on this unanswerable inquiry that the poem ends, yet the question lingers, reverberating through the rest of the book and beyond. Isn’t this, in fact, the question that each of us holds on our tongues, whether or not we ever ask it: how does/would the beloved feel about me?
Right from the start, you will notice a compelling meta-discourse in these poems. Listen:
This morning—a life ago—the gray ribbon of highway fissured a thousand variations of red. From Santa Fe past pueblos of single-wides, scrawny dogs minnowing the heat-shimmers. Past the taquerias and feedstores of Espanola and onto 84.[…] Then sixteen miles of rutted dirt road, the flat top of Pedernal hovering above—the mountain Georgia O’Keeffe painted obsessively, half-joking that God told her if she painted it often enough it would be hers.
To write these poems, I’ve come to live in her backyard.
As a reader, I’m intrigued by Jacobs’ project, her quest to write of O’Keeffe—even as O’Keeffe, in some of her most probing poems—while enveloped by the landscape O’Keeffe knew best, loved most. As a writer, I’m intrigued by Jacobs’ transparency regarding her methods and intentions in this project. I think transparency even before I read: “The first thing I do in the cabin is cover all the mirrors.// Without them, I grow transparent as an old-world/ photographer’s glass plate.” Then: “Completing a poem a day is equal parts exhilaration and terror. It’s like being on a winning streak in gambling. It’s like being in love. The longer it goes on, the more I have to lose when it’s over.”
Much later in the book, our speaker reveals: “Georgia, I came here thinking you’d teach me how to be alone. That if I uncovered your secret, I could reverse-engineer a life by what I’d learned.” Instead, the several weeks’ isolation has awakened the speaker’s own deep longing for companionship, for love. Here is where the third strand of this braided love story first appears. The speaker has been leafing through her stated subject’s correspondence. She excerpts a letter O’Keeffe once sent to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:
It is a very sweet memory to me—And I am rather inclined to feel that you and I know the best part of one another without spending much time together—It is not that I fear the knowing—It is that I am at this moment willing to let you be what you are to me—it is beautiful and pure and very intensely alive.
The allusion to a shared intimacy between Millay, who was married at the time (“If you do not understand what I mean your husband undoubtedly will”) and O’Keeffe, who would go on to marry Stieglitz (“No rings, no reception. In a hotel,/ we make love for the first time/ as husband and wife”) is compelling enough on its own, but it is not the love story to which I refer. Rather, in reading O’Keeffe’s private message to Millay, Jacobs’ speaker can’t help but reflect upon her own history of desire: “All those women I thought I couldn’t live without/ whose names I barely remember—/ is there even one/ I could write such a letter?”
And, as it turns out, there is.
This is my favorite part of the book: the poet’s reckoning with her own desire as she traces another woman’s journey through meeting, posing, courtship, marriage, and widowhood. Jacobs’ self-referential reckonings appear intermittently, but the urgency that surrounds them grows and grows:
In the silence, memories surface. All the standard set pieces: awkward break-ups, shameful gaffes, after-the-fact eloquence for occasions long past. And through it all
the poet from Kentucky, met in the doldrums of a
New York winter. Five years ago, now. Six? […]
The weight of her breasts in my palms as she straddled my hips.
How I ran after her, out into the
street, but she’d already left.
And then, the days at the cabin, and the poems written at the cabin, passing—Jacobs reports:
I begin a letter to the poet I cannot finish.
By this point in the book—page 71—I realize I too have been enveloped by a landscape. More than O’Keeffe’s alone, more than O’Keefe’s with Stieglitz, more than Jacobs’ regarding O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, more even than Jacobs’ and the poet from Kentucky. The landscapes of this book are myriad: geographical, botanical, historical, art-historical, political, sexual. They are so deftly layered that at a certain point, they become inextricable. This book seems to epitomize what is meant by the word gestalt, that pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.
At one point, our speaker, standing in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, contemplates artifacts associated with the artists. There are photographs, letters, “One year of Stieglitz/ O’Keeffe original correspondence—1944—in seven ringed archival boxes.” Our speaker nearly swoons: “She held these. He held these. My breath fluttered their edges. I had the urge to put the corner of one in my mouth. I resisted.”
And here Jacobs begins to glimpse her future, one possible shape of it, glimmering like glass shards in these others’ past. It is their story which spurs her to action:
I finish my letter to the poet
and set it on the sill. Promise myself I’ll mail it
—though I’m not sure I will.
I read on now, but that letter on the sill never leaves my mind’s sight. I refuse to forget it. In fact, I have the urge to reach through the page and place a stamp in the upper-right corner.
Later, the speaker returns to this letter again, peeks inside:
Which is all to say I’m writing to you from a sacred space, from a monument to improbable love. […] Which is to say I am still in love with you. […] You are the only home I’ve ever known.
And of course, I’m adding another strand to this story as I read. I’m thinking of my own improbable love now—you will be thinking of yours, no doubt—of the woman I once left a man at the altar for, knowing suddenly, undeniably, that she was “the only home [I’d] ever known.”
The best art does this to us: implicates us in a story we come to recognize as our own.
Jacobs muses at one point on the lives of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe: “How could I care so much for people I’d never met?”
I know the answer to her question, and you will, too. It’s the reason my heart bongos in my ears as I read:
A part of me is disappointed the hallucinations never came, as though the canyon were a drug that hadn’t quite kicked in. But instead of hearing things not there, perhaps it is enough to have heard more of what was.
It’s the reason I smile at the woman I love, propped on the pillow beside me as I read—still, after all these years.
The caretaker will arrive soon with his truck. My gear is packed,/ the poet’s letter stowed in my bag.
It’s the reason I say aloud—forcefully, startling us both—Mail it!—and trust the speaker will hear.