Abject Lessons by Jennifer Baker (above/ground press, 2014)
a small voice screaming
is better off (“Pilgrim”)
Abject Lessons is as much an admission as a rejection of self, a set of contradictions oscillating one’s roots, relationships and how they inform identity. A lesser poet would leave these inconsistencies out on a platter and let the reader choose, but Jennifer Baker makes you believe all of it: the humdrum and implausible clashes that suggest the unknowable depths of an individual.
Her first publication of any sort, Abject Lessons introduces Baker as both a daring voice out of Exeter, Ontario, and the test subject of three suites. Her rural account in “Pilgrim” is half projected onto a framed family tree, and half lapsing through a hole in the wall. Follow that shaft of light; it provides an account of growing up and living off of land that will just as soon swallow you. That all consuming fear of being stuck isn’t just youthful hyperbole, either — there are horse corpses in the creek and septic quicksand in the backyard.
Among those victims is the Biblical Adam, whose eager dominion relegates the world around him to submissive roles.
content in this mastery of naming horses women land
he wakes to find himself surrounded
swallowed whole (“Dwelling”)
Much like the ominous memories that complicate Baker’s “simple life” upbringing, Adam’s possessiveness in the Book of Genesis offers Baker another veil to chip away at. These rural and relationship concerns seem to be introduced chronologically, as stages of a cryptic bildungsroman, but their juxtaposition isn’t one slab of burden layered over another. Instead they’re knotted. A fieldstone house that “pulls the landscape and sky/ to a hard embrace/ of each-otherness” provides the establishing shot for an internal embrace of duality:
a Self that fits like a glove
clumsily stitched turns easily
inside out and back again
(not a turncoat, exactly
you misheard me)
embracing the both/and expansiveness
lest dust caress and collect in the cracks
of well-worked leather (“Dwelling”)
The dynamics of this headspace grow more complex and relatable as the title sequence unfolds, tackling couple-hood in all its concessions and restrictions. The fear of falling prey remains but not in the wild, which is reduced to a luxury concern amid “saintly clasping of masculine hands & small tweets of/ empty outrage”. As the failed coaxing of a strawberry plant symbolizes, nature is difficult to manipulate — particularly between two people. And as Baker tries to solidify an independent self in this arena, “Abject Lessons” spirals toward a distinctly feminine horror: the Medusa-like transformation.
was he fantasizing a redemptive narrative
with his apology — expecting gentle forgiveness
before he found me in the orchard
the Cixousian hysteric hucking apple cores
at him and screaming
E (“Abject Lessons”)
The ramifications of what we don’t know as readers — what is being muzzled or internalized by the author — gets increasingly unnerving. And while this suspense helps make Abject Lessons such a page-turner, the credit belongs as much to Baker’s form. Never sitting still or pining for uniformity, her stanzas look good on the page and read naturally in the span of a breath. Baker’s command of tone almost makes it possible to hear these poems aloud as they’re being read. Such authority also suggests details that aren’t explicit, as Baker intensifies and then turns a cheek, almost apologetically, as though choosing to save face rather than own up to a more vulnerable side of the glove. The raw admission “baby you worked your way into my fleshy heart rooms/ wounds/ like necrosis” is quickly followed by “poetry about feelings is boring/ so let’s talk about how agonizing/ mitosis must be”.
This is bizarre praise but I can’t think of a chapbook better suited for a David Fincher adaptation: a narrative of quick edits that challenge our societal impulses while orbiting an unresolved mystery. An outstanding debut.