A Penance by CJ Evans
(New Issues, 2012)
reviewed by Erin L. Miller
In CJ Evans’ latest collection of poems, images speak for themselves, allowing their peculiarity or violence to stand on their own. Despite what the title suggests, A Penance doesn’t seem a collection meant to atone but rather one that pulls certain things to the surface. In each poem, Evans creates a new world set in carefully selected and connected images. He strikes an uneasy timbre, placing stories of prison inmates next to personal confessions of desire next to a speaker vexed with the cruelties of the world. He writes through both a personal and global scope, touching on broad yet poignant themes. The collection is frank but lyrical and it is this balance that makes the blunt declarations so surprising.
Small, curious turns of phrases show up unexpectedly in the middle of poems, as in “the porpoise of a woman near orgasm” or “dangerous as owl pellets.” Other parts halt the reader in their certain and somber temper: “We have certainly failed so far,” “I dread your affection,” and “How can I know my children won’t be monsters?”
It is this consistent and lingering sense of doom that reminds the reader of the speaker’s acute familiarity with dark places (in himself and his environment): “It’s late / and I’ve misplaced,” “Trouble is nesting in my lungs,” and “Here’s the pallid / infection, the much-quiet dying.”
The speaker seems tethered between doubt and a wish to redress. Living in the company of paradox, Evans speaks of the “much-loud living” against everyday failings. He pairs subdued natural scenes with the wires of industry, animals with people, tragedy with intimacy. And despite the subtle brutality of some of the poems, others embody a lovely tonality that serves as soft interruptions, as in lines like “The nights pass like gypsum and butter” or “Let’s find a nesting box and pull / the smell of figs from beneath the bed.”
Mindful to sound, Evans strings together images and commands in a captivating stride. In “Instructions for Silk,” he begins with a thread of soft “b” sounds, “Never again the black box, the bind, / the flightless bird. Becalm in paper scent / of scotch.” only to quickly advance to an even longer series of biting “s” sounds “Silt, spend your fume […] Arrive / slim-boned, wisped, lusting after lust […] Never again, singe or wasp.” It’s this quiet unraveling that lends to the textured quality of his work.
In “The Work of Giants,” Evans writes about the wolfish, sometimes paltry quality of lust when compared to the world’s cruel giants: “The world is furious and I’m so tired / of being furious with it […] all / I want is your skin against my skin.” However, desire takes on multiple meanings in the book. It represents the distractions of lust but also a means toward growth and a lens to interact with the world.
In a book that hinges on honest examinations, Evans not only writes about conflicts of the world but also conflicts of the self reacting to the world. He explores self-evolution, learning through failure, and the inevitable not-knowing, as in “This Time in Wartime”:
[…] I don’t
know the name of this new
thing. This thing I’ve let settle
down throughout me,
which spreads itself enormously
like unfurling skeins
of creosote and becomes
me. Far off, the artillery
flashes, and I miss the boys
I’ve been […]
The poem “Metamorphoses” serves as a multi-tiered study of the inevitability and universality of change in its use of the first person plural while moving back and forth from natural elements to the human condition. He also writes about moving beyond and reconciling the cruelties of the world while avoiding a maudlin voice of redemption. Many of the poems in the book have a fictional, dreamy air to them, as if existing just beyond, in another realm. The power of poetic whimsy is certainly not lost on Evans. He takes a step away from the first person, choosing instead to focus on observation. He lets the speakers’ reactions to their environments reveal their true character. They’re speakers who are simultaneously tired and sanguine of the world’s machinery. Despite the dark themes surrounding the text, they don’t give in to helplessness. For example, in “I Know the Pinecones,” the speaker discusses the pinecone’s sharp defenses as merely products of the world’s design, blameless subjects of the Earth’s “cruel devices.”
The collective self in the book ultimately becomes the self that, as Wallace Stevens writes, “touches all edges… that fills the four corners of night.” There’s no denying that A Penance is an expansive collection, which can appear, at times, scattered. Yet, what the book loses slightly in cohesion, it gains in powerful single lines and concise language. Every piece feels precise. If Jean-Luc Godard is right in saying that language is the house man lives in, then CJ Evans has built a striking piece of architecture.