Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Harlot
I can’t say Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Harlot is brand-new—her next book, Necropolis, is already out—or that I just discovered it and couldn’t wait to to write about it—she traded a copy at West Chester for my home-made chap Jack Songs. But the truth is, I’ve done essentially nothing since West Chester, and guilt at not having told everyone about this wonderful book is no small part of why I’ve (too) slowly begun to redesign and resurrect this blog.
Those of you who have already checked out the cover art at the link above will have guessed that the book is frankly sexual, and those of you who have read her other work will also expect that it is profoundly religious. That admixture has ancient roots, in the Song of Songs and Sappho and, as H. L. Hix observes in one of the back cover blurbs: “one hears [in Harlot] Herbert and Wyatt and Donne, their parallax view of religion as sex and sex as religion … their fondling and squeezing of language.”
Neither the religion nor the sex is easy. “Bad Friday” begins
The Light went dim, and then demented.
And that was the queasy last of it.
When they finagled his body down from its hanging tree,
they gave it to me
And said Take, grieve. I sent the others home
and I arrayed him in his tomb …
Did someone come and steal him
from the grave? All that remains are the linens
that I left him in, aromatic, sheer
and ghostly. An angel says he is not here.
Where the fuck is he?
And here’s the opening of “Folie à Deux, Ménage à Trois”:
She is comely. You are charming. I am drunk.
So we teeter on the precipice of this suggestion, the three of us,
our novice incompetence showing like leg through a sheer skirt
until someone musters nerve enough to insert
the odd thumb into the odd waistband
and we proceed—hand in hand in hand—
Despite attendance at this year’s West Chester Jill says she’s a rhymer and not really a formalist, but “rhymer” is a poor word for her play with echo and distortion, and if she counts no feet, her most successful lines are nevertheless powerfully rhythmic, and the rhythms are often nearly onomatopoetic in their relation to the action of the poem. For instance, in the opening two lines of the poem quoted just above, the first has the careful, short precision of a drunk just aware of being drunk, and the second almost literally teeters, sandwiching the sibilant consonance of precipice of this suggestion between the assonance of teeter and three—and to rhyme drunk with us and then skirt with insert!
Or take the shortest poem in the book, which I will quote in full:
Four simple chambers.
A thousand complicated doors.
One of them is yours.
The opening couplet rhymes its first word with its last, by way of a slant rhyme to each at the end of line 1 and powerful assonance near the ends of the two lines, and again rhymes the speaker’s last, solitary line, addressed to someone who has not opened the right door.
I am a formalist, and listening to Jill read the opening poem of Harlot, “And it Came to Pass,” I’m confused that she ignores her line and even stanza endings, which seem to me to break interestingly against the normal phrasing of English. Buy the book and read along with the recording to see what I mean.
But that’s not a problem, or, if it is, it’s mine, I think. Harlot is powerful work, sometimes heartbreaking, and a lot of fun along the way.