by Judy Jordan
86 pages, Tinderbox Editions, January 2018
Review by Donna Vorreyer
It’s not hunger from which one dies but despair
or so the night comes, with its smells of owls and blood,
to tell me.
Hunger is both physical and metaphysical in Judy Jordan’s richly-textured book, and there is no shortage of despair. Jordan deftly uses the eye of a naturalist to bring the reader not only the despair of homelessness, poverty, starvation, and how the world can fail us, but also to give us the hope, rebirth and wonder held in the natural world.
In many of these poems, the speaker takes on the persona of Io. The conceit is well-chosen, as the collection constantly builds bridges between worlds, giving us the realism of city environments and the lives of the working poor alongside hyper-explicated imagery of the natural surroundings of the speaker’s dwelling. As Io escaped to Egypt in order to regain her human form after being cursed, the speaker also must transform, inhabiting a remote and crumbling greenhouse as a way to re-enter the world of the housed and the whole. The first poem in the collection, “Io Moves into the Greenhouse,” places us immediately into this setting:
the acorn-busy squirrels, those bundles of chittery fur
for whom living must seem like nothing
more than moments piled on moments of sheer
terrifying luck. Which is how she felt–except
for the luck—when she moved into the half-collapsed
Many other poems in the collection preserve and catalog this time of transformation. In the poem “Into Light, Into Another Day,” Jordan takes the reader on a visual walk-through of the living space:
Plate, spoon, knife, cast-iron pan.
Rope I pull myself up with. Futon,
pillow, seams bleeding feathers,
desk lamp hanging by its cord
from the metal hoops beside the one
pair of dress pants, the sun-splotched coat,
water hose coiled on the ice-slivered gravel:
how I name myself now. And this:
flats of plants, flats of bone-flecked wet, black loam,
slim seeds slipped into the soil so rich it breathes.
This world, devoid of most material objects, is rich with the persistent and celebrated presence of gravel, frogs, spiders, mold, and loam. These images contrast with the urban world, which is presented as at odds with this natural one and holds the most terror and unrest. Whenever the speaker is most vulnerable, we are in the world of buildings and people—a judge berates a young black man in a courtroom where all cases go against the defendants; a nation of people take out bank loans / to buy groceries. A hospital has seized a bank account for payment on back surgery, pain / so bad it snapped the thread that tethered the blue sigh / of [my] soul. A light windbreaker having little impact in an unemployment line in the cold and stinging rain.
The centerpiece of the book is the twenty-page poem “ Hunger Moon, ” which chronicles the daily suffering of physical hunger, of new notches on the one belt which holds up the one pair of good pants. Written in a more direct narrative timeline, it chronicles the speaker’s descent into poverty and near-starvation after not being able to pay the high cost of recovering from a catastrophic medical event. The poem gives us both personal history and historical context of hardship, including sections that are about the increasing numbers of “days without food” and a haunting visit from the deceased father:
here to tell me not to give up, here to tell me
of his days of hunger, nine-year-old, hopping trains in 1929,
beggin g work, here to tell me, the body’s an amazing thing.
Now that he doesn’t have one, he should know.
It can take years to die, he’s here to say. He wants me
to know that was the thing that most surprised him.
This section is a tour-de-force, somehow maintaining a clear narrative of homelessness and suffering while including references as diverse as Herbert Hoover, spiders, late-night pizza delivery, and cucumber flowers, yet never seeking pity, never delving into the voice of a victim. The political commentary about the costs of medical care (both financial and emotional) is evident in the text, but never heavy-handed and always presented with authentic voice and detail.
In the third section of the book Green Hand Up Through the Ground, Door Scraping Open, the reader is given poems of possibility, of fertility, of recovery. For this reader, some of the repeated images of the world of the greenhouse lead to a bit of language fatigue. There sometimes didn’t seem to be enough newness in how the plants, the soil, the insects, the field were referenced, although the poems are accomplished and lovely, moving toward a most satisfying ending. In the penultimate poem “Hunger in the Month of Exploding Trees,” the speaker makes a list of things not to fear, ending with
Though every sense is honed to hunger,
gripped by that one thought.
Fear it not.
In “It Happened at Wind Sings, Trees Whisper Farm,” Jordan shares secrets and cruelties of both childhood and the present, observing Strange, the small stones of silence we carry through our lives. This revealing collection breaks a silence and gives voice to viewpoints that are often unheard in poems—those who live invisibly day-to-day, meal-to-meal. Those who can find the beauty in the world even when it has broken and ignored them.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press).