Jenny Dreadful: Riches for One, Poverty for Two
Jenny's real last name is Rossi. My first editorial suggestion would be to stick with "Dreadful," all the better since the work that fills the bulk of these pages is not particularly bad ass. In fact, there is a great deal of touching and sweet to it. I don't say that as a slight. For all my flippancy, dismissiveness, ridicule of just about everything everyone calls dear, etc., the truth is, I really admire those with the balls (figuratively speaking, of course) to wear their hearts on their sleeves, believe in the possibility of the better day, holding onto ideals and integrity, like wishes to the heart. I used to be like that. Until I realized
I used to know this guy--yes, back in the day--let's call him...Brian Fast. I was a wide-eyed rube just off the farm truck, and Brian was the hardened city boy. We became friends. I think that's what you'd call it. Everything was a joke to Brian. He wrote songs about erectile dysfunction or shitting too much or whatever other novelty topic he could use to mock what others believed in. I was only 23, and I held everything dear, and my earnest Springsteen knock-offs were ripe fodder for Brian. I learned a couple things from Brian. One, that it's easy to make fun of everything when you don't stand for everything, and two--and more importantly--that if I stayed that wide-eye naif, I wouldn't last another year in this city. And thus I mourn the loss of that innocence...
I don't know how old Jenny Dreadful is, but I'm guessing younger than I, and, again, I'm not saying that to disparage her. There is something endearing about youthful cynicism tempered with heavier-than-usual doses of the ideal. When you get to my age, there's just a heart that's been broken too many times to love anymore (sigh). The problem is that usually the younger you are, the lousier the writing. Usually. But that's not the case here. Which isn't a coincidence. When Jenny asked if I'd review her chapbook, I said I'd have to read it first, because I didn't feel comfortable writing a negative review. You bust your ass and leave your heart on the page, only to have some asshole (see grad writing workshops) dismiss it with the wave of a hand. ("The image of the pineapple as a metaphor for loss in line 3 just isn't working for me." Well, fuck you, David Norman. I don't give a shit what you think.)
I'm not going to go all gushy here. Frankly, not all the poems move me in this collection. Which isn't surprising. I have a very small window for what appeals to me. Or as P. Scott Cunningham says, I "can't appreciate anything outside [my] milieu." Very true, P. Scott. Very true. I need a certain subject matter, a visceral grittiness... I need Hank Bukowkski. Or Kerouac. And here we get both. If with a twist.
In "Kerouac Is Kool," the subject is my favorite author--but it's not what you think. There are a million (shitty) poems affecting the hepcat Beat manner of speech, or commandering time for a mythical night out with Allen, Jack, Billy and Neal, overwrought, tired images of highways and trains, drinking from bags, living wild, young, and free. Which is idealizing, just a wee bit. This was the first poem that really grabbed me in this collection, showed me that I was dealing with a writer with formidable chops. I've already confessed, I am no barometer for poetic prowess. But I do know writing. And this is good stuff.
You must father a daughter to be this Kool / and leave her to the wolves of the '60s / you must be a man like that / Have many journeys, skip birthdays, grudgingly give a paternity test.
The first time I heard about Jan Kerouac was during a Beat festival at the Roxie sometime in the mid 1990s. I was caught up in all things Beat; Kerouac was the reason I was in this city. Jan was going to present a film that night but was too sick from the liver that was failing her. She died not long after. Jack Kerouac was an amazing writer, but even his biggest supporters are forced to admit, he was a rather shitty human being. And as a father, his behavior incorrigible and shameful. Trying to emulate the father she never knew, while at the same time outrun a shadow of legendary excess, Jan was an alcoholic almost out of the gate, doomed to a wasted life. I love that Jenny takes Jan's side here. This poem succeeds in embracing the Beat aesthetic while infusing it with a punkish feminism. Very cool.
There is a cute poem in this collection called "Oh, Bukowski," which I won't reproduce here, but in a handful of lines, I promise, it does as good a job of capturing the essence of Bukowksi as you'll ever read.
Still, the real strength of Jenny Dreadful's debut, Riches for One, Poverty for Two, is in its raw innocence, bite reconciled with reflection, punches that don't come at the expense of admitting personal loss and just how much that loss hurt, how big a hole it left. At its core are the relationships that forge who we are, allow us to grow and mature, evolve, but these things never come free.
In "What Ray Taught Me," we get a glimpse at the dying stages of lesser stars.
I once fell in love with a man who had an open book for a face.
When we started to fall apart I couldn't help but leave copies
of Fahrenheit 451 by the bed. "You're a bitch," he said but I just
sat around flickering lighters until my thumb was raw.
I've been in that room, love dying on the vine and all that's left is for the rotten fruit to drop and just end it, so everyone can get on with their lives, alone and apart. It's excruciating, the silence between us.
I play rock 'n' roll, been doing it for a while. I write songs. There are various stages to learning new songs with a band. The first stage is the shittiest part, because nobody knows the fucking chords or changes or dynamics, and someone (usually the bass player [*note this is NOT directed at current WJ bassist, Big Tom]) will start shouting out random notes to replace the ones that are already there so that he can say he helped write it ("How about a...G?"). If you don't give up, give in, and can get everyone on the same page, the next stage is where the magic happens. Your first few performances are ragged, raw, sloppy but passionate. Later on, you'll know the song better, and it will be more polished and professional. It will be better. But you never can get that initial energy back. (Listen to the Replacements' two version of "Can't Hardly Wait," the outtake from Tim and the official release off Pleased to Meet Me; you'll experience this phenomena firsthand...)
I use this analogy because through Riches/Poverty, I spotted mistakes, the little things you learn not to do in grad school, ending lines with prepositions, the improper quotation, etc., small things, and these errors will certainly get the snooty to to feel superior, but I am not sure the trade-off, polishing and packaging pretty at the expense of an imperfect band just figuring shit out and playing with reckless abandon is worth it.
I think you'd lose poems like this.
"I Could Use a New Country, Maybe Brazil"
where the sun knives my skin, paring it to the flesh of peaches
where even saudade is overripe, a bearable linger, like the sun
through the skin of leaves.
Not the sort of tenderness I'd expect from a girl who calls herself Jenny Dreadful. Which is why I like it.