Thursday, March 3, 2011

Poet du Jour: Jehanne Dubrow

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Jehanne Dubrow's Stateside is a wonderful collection. This poet’s exquisite formal poetry seems especially appropriate in a collection about the traditional subject of war, a subject that, sadly, is as relevant today as it was when Homer composed his epic poems. Dubrow gives us the story of modern warfare from the perspective of a military wife left stateside during the months of her husband's deployment. These are not, however, protest poems. There's no Afghanistan, no Iraq, no president or political party under attack. We never even learn the location of the husband's deployment. Stateside is the personal side, the woman's side of war.

The collection's forty-three poems are divided into three loosely chronological sections. Part I precedes the husband's departure. The wife experiences anxiety over the coming separation and her husband's safety. Her love and fear are poignantly conveyed throughout this section. For example, in "Love in the Time of Coalition," the poet employs the language of war in a sonnet, traditionally the form for a love poem: “He whispers weapons of mass destruction / against the sand dune of her skin. She’s toxin. // She’s liquid sarin. She’s pure plutonium. / Her tracers burn and dim and burn again.”  Even this couple’s love-making is shadowed by war. In "Sea Change" the speaker imagines her husband, a sailor, drowning and absorbed by the sea: ". . . salt water scrubbing sand / into my husband's skin, / his fingers pale anemones, his hands / turned coral reef, and in / his eyes the nacreous pearls of Ariel." She fears his drowning—and her inability to save him.

The poems in Part II focus on Homer’s Penelope, the traditional model of a military wife left behind by her husband in time of war. But this is a Penelope transported into modern times. The speaker imagines Penelope, identifies with her, and speaks for her. She, too, must care for a son. But whereas Penelope was the model of fidelity, that virtue is something the speaker wrestles with. In "Ithaca" she is described as "a wife who tries / to guard her chastity, ties / it like a yellow ribbon to her door, // sticks it to the bumper of / her car, so that the neighbors know / she sleeps alone . . ." Ithaca is for her a metaphor: “She’s Ithaca, trapped in her own body, / an island circled by the sea.” Homer’s Penelope managed her household and spun her cloth; Dubrow’s Penelope must also deal with the details of domestic life, but these details are contemporary and often take her out of the house. She goes to the mall, gets a new hairdo, buys ice cream at the Dairy Queen, and dines at Taco Bell.

But the speaker is also a woman who dreams of her husband and longs for his touch. In “Instructions for Other Penelopes” the longing for physical touch is exquisitely revealed in imagery both sensuous and sensual:


spin what you can from his absence      a shroud
a crocheted throw in indigo and red

if mirrors crack cut jewels from the glass
comfort the muscular suitor with a kiss

comfort yourself      how long since you've been wound
or loosened from the loom      how long your hand

has worked the thread      fingered the filament
practice beauty as though it is an instrument

learn siren songs      forget the funeral hymn
pretend you are widow done with mourning

black will be the color of a tryst
and red will be a warning that you are past

the ashes of these twenty years      announce
your appetite      olives by the fistful      minced

garlic rubbed across a crust of bread
grapes giving up their stain      make an orchid

of your lips     a reckless garden of your skin
move      be still as marble      move again

call yourself mythology     converse
in rhyme in metaphor in Sapphic verse

how sweet to speak cinnamon and cloves
the taste of rosewater on your tongue      remove

your dress      the zipper opening like a V
or else imagine it       how easily

some layers are unreeled while some remain
the pith and rind     the liquid heart      the stone

The poems in Part III occur after the husband's return. Now the wife must become wife again. The marriage is strained by the effects of war and the long separation. “VJ Day in Times Square” evokes our memory of the famous Eisenstaedt photo taken in Times Square at the end of WW II. The speaker romanticizes the kiss, but ultimately remembers that the two kissers were strangers and wonders why she and her husband are now as distant from each other as two strangers:


This is how distances begin-we two,
who hurry like a pair of travelers through
our home, each room a city block,
and often we are miles from talking.
I could wave at you from a kitchen chair
as though in a cafeteria. Upstairs
becomes its own municipality.
Sometimes there is the cordiality
of namelessness, the way one passerby
might intersect then hold another's eye,
smiling before the traffic light turns green.

But opening an art book, I've seen
us in that shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Remember? A sailor holds a nurse, his hat
askew so that it seems about to fall,
forever tilting on his head. She's small,
although her body curves like steel, a bridge
suspended in that kiss. There's courage
in collision. Two pedestrians touch,
embracing in a photograph with such
quick ease it's hard to know why when we meet
we're cold as strangers passing on the street.

Dubrow has a remarkable facility with forms. They are handled with such deftness and grace that the reader is barely aware of their presence. A close inspection reveals a number of sonnets scattered throughout the collection, other poems in blank verse, some in syllabic verse, and others in rhymed couplets and rhymed quatrains. There's even a triple triolet! William Stafford defined a poem as “an artistic arrangement of words on the page.” Dubrow displays the artist's touch in the way she formats her poems, sometimes going flush to the left margin, other times scattering the lines in a visually attractive pattern of indented lines. When she scatters lines, uses white space, and omits punctuation, it is not gratuitous but rather relevant to the subject of the poem. She uses form to convey meaning. The previously mentioned "Sea Change," for example, uses indentations that beautifully parallel the wife's shifting in and out of a dream and also suggest the changes the wife fears in her husband.

Stateside is both a delicate and a forceful collection. It 
simultaneously pleases us the way familiar stories do and delights us with its invention and poetic skill. And it reminds us that no matter the scope, war is always personal.

See two more poems from the collection:

Before the Deployment—Academy of American Poets
Oenophilia—New England Review


  1. Thank you for featuring Dubrow. Stunning indeed. Hers will be the next poetry book I buy.

  2. Wow! I was unfamiliar with Jehane Dubrow's, 'Stateside'. Defintely, poignant to an issue that hits home. Thank you for sharing and I too will locate Ms. Dubrow's poetry.

  3. I'm happy to introduce you to a poet you don't already know. You'll love the book.


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