Original Face by Jim Peterson
(Gunpowder Press, 2015)
reviewed by Gary Dop
Jim Peterson’s latest collection, Original Face, weaves meditative inquiry with narrative mastery. These stories and reflections return, again and again, to Adam and Eve, to man and woman, and to the possibility that all of life’s suffering, sensuality, and joy are part of a sweeping love story. This suggestion risks oversimplifying Peterson’s book, which contains multitudes in each of its moments, including explorations of Goya’s paintings, a maintenance engineer’s love song, and people who live inside loose-fitting bags.
Original Face’s distinction is its close focus on expansiveness and inclusivity. In “The Long Roads,” a poem whose subject seems to be the loss of a child, Peterson expands the subject matter to the relationship or connection of all things: absence and presence, body and earth. The poem, as expected, presents the mother’s loss, but her behavior—her calmness and acceptance—provides an unexpected response, which is built upon the presence of the lost child, active and involved in the scene, as though death has not ended life as much as it has changed it.
The poem’s closing sentence follows a moment in which the mother considers a pickup passing by, a moment we perceive as normal until the child, who we know to be dead, is present. Unlike the reader, the mother finds the child’s presence to be as normal as the pickup: “the presence she feels / dreaming in the leaves around her.” Soon “her man” will be home:
The night will crawl out
from the roots of great maples and oaks
through their windows and into their bed,
into the fallow and fertile fields,
down the long roads
that lead to all of their kind,
even that curious child
resting deep in the vine.
Life continues in these “fertile fields,” where the lost child, who is not a passive presence, alive only in memory, but an active presence, is signified by that most alive adjective: “curious.” Here, “deep in the vine,” all things are one, all are normal.
Peterson supports this normalizing sensibility in the sounds of his poems. The music, which feels as easy and conversational as Whitman, has, like Whitman, a natural use of rhythm, consonance, and assonance, among other devices. In the previous example from “The Long Roads,” the closing three lines are strung together with the assonance of the hard I sound in the last word of each line, which complements the notion that all things—“kind,” “child,” and “vine”—are unified.
We see this unification again in “Planting Season,” a poem about the playful barroom connection of a woman and a man. This type of poem, the meeting of lovers, has been written since antiquity, but Peterson’s sincere, yet humorous version brings an earthy point of connection between the lovers. The poem’s narrated by the man—“She has black dirt on her face,”—but the action of the poem is the woman’s. She pursues. She establishes the game. She brings the black dirt, which is not only on her face, but also her feet, her hands, and in her mouth. For the man, the black dirt is not an object separate from the woman, something to be washed away, but it is a compelling part of her beauty. The poem ends, and the lovers are together, after the woman approaches the man, throws her dirty feet up on the table, and they speak to each other:
“I hope you like
black dirt,” she says. I make a grin
with as much black dirt in it
as I can muster. “Oh yes,” I say.
Perhaps it is the openness of his characters that makes his narratives, and the speaker in nearly all of these poems, dynamic. These people all seem to be taking in the world, “the light and the dark,” rejecting nothing; even in moments of suffering or difficulty, the characters do not walk away—they walk into and through their experiences.
They study each moment, as does the speaker in “Men and Women in Sacks,” who watches a woman remove her sack and swim in a river. When she steps out of the river, the speaker sees her: “her wet body glinting / like a sword.” He studies her, and when they’ve finally seen each other:
we step out of our sacks, open
our bodies to the light and the dark
and to each other, and together
we lie down in the river
of deep currents, the cold
pouring over us, together swim, free
to find our own way home.
The speaker’s freedom flows with the change that has arrived, a change born of the studied, open eye, receiving whatever comes. These characters, and the characters in many of Peterson’s poems, model an openness that teaches the reader how to experience the book. No, it’s more than that—Original Face wants to teach us how to live an open life, to help us crawl from our confining sacks. Peterson’s poems all seem to say, of suffering, of joy, of dirt, of freedom, the same thing his readers will say of this expansive, moving collection: “Oh yes!”