Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review of "California" in The Kenyon Review

Eric Weinstein from The Kenyon Review reviews Jennifer Denrow's California.

"Forget your life. // Okay, I have.” The first lines of Act I, “California,” invite the suspension of disbelief, the recreation of the tabula rasa, necessary for the lines that follow to register emotionally. “When I’m in California I’ll go to the beach / and cry. All of the seagulls will crowd // around me and force my mouth open / with their wings,” Denrow writes, imagining a state populated with animals in which “no one can be alive.” This alternate reality, this heaven, is a kind of psychological sanctuary made physical: “I could become holy in California,” Denrow writes: “I could live in a small room with only a little light.” The narrator doesn’t ask much: she only needs a little freedom, a little unreality. The pursuit of this unreality is unavoidable, addictive. In a dialogue with her husband, the narrator says, “I push my finger into / his chin and cry: It feels like this, I say, / I need it this bad.” The need to undertake the journey, to explore the new identity, is painful.

Like “How the Mind Works Still to be Sure” and “California,” the second act begins with a call to forget what has gone before: “You put your thumb in front of your eye. / This is the world now” (“Things Reappear”). Act II, which is untitled, comprises a brief series of short poems that invoke the atmosphere of Hollywood, or at least the theatrical: understudies break character, directors move from room to room, the reader is told to assume the identities of police officers, clerks, trees, without actually becoming those things (“You think that the beginning / of being a tree must be so hard. Your arms / tire quickly,” from “Your Character”). The search for identity continues, this time framed by the stage.

Denrow offers an end to this searching, if not an actual endpoint, in the third and final act, “A Knee for a Life.” It opens with an epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, evoking the image of stone transitioning to flesh in the same way a marble block transforms, by the sculptor’s hand, into a statue. Again, the previous form is shed; a transition is made; the old identity is left behind in search of another. This section, a written correspondence between the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, explores the intricacies of identity even further than the previous two: is an exchange between a man and his puppet—the mind of the former containing the mind of the latter—a dialogue? A monologue, as in the first act of California? A hybrid of the two? The title of the act hints at an answer, both in terms of exchanging a knee (a part) for a life (the whole) and McCarthy’s whole life being limited to Bergen’s knee, but no resolution is offered. As in the previous acts, the migration, the search, overshadows its illusive and elusive destination."

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