blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | My Hand Upon Your Name, by Jeannine Savard

The years Jeannine Savard has spent teaching at Arizona State University have produced in her new poems a spirit-inhabited desert landscape. Her poems in My Hand Upon Your Name establish a significant stylistic departure for Savard, whose earlier work from Trumpeter (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1993) and Snow Water Cove (University of Utah Press, 1988) were more closely knit narratives. She employed the same close attention to detail and color in her early “The Birth of the Mortician’s Goddaughter,” and in other poems situated in a small mill town in the mountains of New England. The poems from her second volume accrued greater heft and they began to intervene between dream and reality. In “A Tale of Hair,” the poem tells us “Her life was small and kept going / In and out of a dream of a dead uncle / With joe-pye weed in his hand.” However, in her new poems the interweaving is implicit. “For Dear Life” begins:

The Dreaming Back
for my mothers, for me to catch

the spring spirit
of Dublin and Vincennes
in their bones,

prayers looking like white mantises
around my fire, washed transparent
bodies with the happiness of butterfish.

But the poem shifts us sinuously into the present with its next lines:

My own hand, a small hand
holds onto a cup of hot tea, the last finger
rising in the air, curve of a garden hook, or
sea chimney rising out of the North Atlantic.

Her most arresting poems fuse imaginative and physical realities, reflect this habit of mind, so that she conflates the interior with the exterior, as if they can mutually influence each other. These dislocations, or elisions of meaning where the surreal attaches, create in the poems Chinese boxes of compressed associations. Her readers inhabit the dream worlds of the poems. For example, in “The Turning Sky,” her opening poem:

The cloud grows in the cat’s belly
while he sleeps.  One gray bird
dives down into the cold wave
for a fish.

Meanwhile, the speaker is reading “about the wooden fish,” tied onto the body of a “dead Zen / master on his way to fire.” The cat simultaneously stirs, while the monks chant “and the bird lets drop / the fish inside the cypress tree, ants / eating the dry eyes in minutes.” The poem dislocates and rearranges for us the presence of clouds, a cat, a bird, a “real” fish, an emblematic image of a fish, a dead Zen master, and a monk. Later in the poem’s second and third stanzas, these co-creators will be brought to energetic life in the mind of a painter as well. The dry eyes of the fish become the monk’s eyes, or the eyes of the Zen master. His “funeral” seems to take place simultaneously with the dropping of the fish, the dreaming of the cat; the picking of “hot pieces of bone,” the painter at work, whose “last brush stroke swallowed the cat.” This inventiveness in terms of a chimera-like transfusion of the imagination into the “real,” is Savard’s great strength in her new volume, along with her descriptive abilities.

In a subsequent poem “Some Empty Frames,” she employs the same transformative effects in a line whose last two words begin the sentence, “The shadows / of elms swimming ideograms all over / the snowy white tops / of your shoes.” The poems are reminders of the imagination’s seamlessness. These images are literal, but figuratively refer to the Chinese language, to mountains, perhaps to brush painting. Savard’s echoing of Native American and non-Christian animism inculcates her vision with that spirit. Her poems hold to the natural world even in the midst of narrative drama.

In “The Walking Mountain Meditation” the writer evokes with impressive clarity and tension the constellation of family in a narrative that is kin to her earlier work but emotionally packed: She looks back at a classmate’s response to a mother’s suicide,

the impossible chaos
of bone and a phlegm-like pit of blood
you must have found on your hands,
the flannel pajamas soaking it all in.
Weeks later, you tell me: ‘The blood
wouldn’t stop.’

Savard evokes the scene outside the classroom, where the girls have run, outside the

boiler room door: the red tongues of goats, a string
of peppers, and wild orchids! To let us loose was all
they could do: butterflies out of a torn net,
I thought.

These poems effervesce with images, surprising juxtapositions, a way of writing that is unhampered. The poems “The Mission Stone,” and “Memorial Day” both open with sentences that surprise us. In “The Mission Stone” the writer and a young girl are choosing small wooden religious carvings. The poem begins “The virgins with doors in their bodies / fold out like small cupboards on the glass / display case” and opens to the possibilities inherent in the girl’s encounter with the “god” inside. “Memorial Day,” likewise begins “This day, for some reason no one remembers, / was served up at noon with lemon meringues” but takes surprising directions, in the juxtaposition of a brother and sister’s “plaster tortoise and rabbit” against the final line, “Each one crosses the finish line alone.” These are poems about family, but at a sufficient remove, thanks to the poet’s skill, that the material has been transformed from the merely anecdotal. Thus “Elegy,” for Savard’s father, is singularly successful. The second section of this poem begins:

You’ve come back wearing the skin of a seal,
the moon’s cotton over your open hands.
I have nothing to tell but I listen
and listen—a set of teeth shakes down into snow,
a stolen hakapic leans with its hook
against the pine.

The loose structures of the poems, their simplicities in language belie their evocations, mysterious and tender. Savard’s voice is unconstrained, fluid, loose, and the use of a second person address in a number of poems compounds this informality. In her poem “Rain in Five Places Over Chino Valley,” we hear a strong-voiced narrator who possesses a sense of wonder, rather like the early Gary Snyder:

I stood as long as I could on the edge
of the pole house, one finger on reality,
storms I could count, and a cup of milk
in my other hand like a virtue
I did not possess but nevertheless,
took to my grip.

The poet’s shifts in perspective animate her interaction with reality; in a sense, Savard changes our perceptions about how poetry can be made. “The jackrabbit ran / and the ivy began to change the moment / from big-in-itself to don’t-you-grieve.” I admire these poems with their mirage-like Western landscapes, her meditations in India. 

Savard’s loose play with form, on the one hand, gives rise to associative possibilities; on the other hand there are times when the lineation seems a bit arbitrary, where, for example, in “Betting on ‘Lustral Lad’ in the Fifth,” the poem’s ending detaches, through a break in the pattern of lines, from the rest of the poem. Some of these efforts worked less effectively for me. But Savard’s accomplishments overshadow these minor weaknesses. Her vision is finally arresting, visionary and scintillant, as in the following lines from a poem entitled “Visiting the Stone Mansion of a Dead Hindu Saint:” “Out of the fresh smell of cumin / and guilt in the air, I think I feel a hand / unassuming, resting on my head.”  end of text

Jeannine Savard is a poet and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She has published several volumes of poetry, including My Hand Upon Your Name (Red Hen Press, 2005), Trumpeter (Carnegie Mellon, 1993), and Snow Water Cove, originally published by the University of Utah in 1988 and re-released in 2005 by Carnegie Mellon as part of their Classic Contemporary series. Savard is a recipient of the Jerome Poetry Shestack Prize from The American Poetry Review and has published her poems in  many national journals. She lives in Arizona. spacer Jeannine Savard

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