Online Edition: Summer 2004

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The Escape

Jo Ann Wasserman

Futurepoem Books ($14)

by Michelle Mitchell-Foust

My two hands began a fight," Franz Kafka writes in The Blue Octavo Notebooks, "I never turned my gaze from them. If they are my hands, I must referee fairly, otherwise I shall bring down on myself the agonies of a wrong decision." In Jo Ann Wasserman's riveting and important collection The Escape, she uses her two battling hands to write about her two great preoccupations: "Writing" and "My mother."

The Escape begins with "Memoria," a lengthy prose poem that resembles the style of Kafka's Notebooks. The jottings present an example of a cross section of the writing process, as we read the lines the speaker wrote and the lines the speaker didn't write in some journal that is off-page:

I said, "Thanks so much, Rob." He smiled and said, "I remember you really liked to party," as he opened a small velvet bag like you might use to carry jewels. Then he said, "My name isn't Rob," and he examined me from above his sunglasses. This is not in the notebook. In the notebook, after the bit about vitamin B, I wrote, Go somewhere. Sit. Write a poem.

In "Memoria" we read a poetry seemingly unfiltered and yet filtered, and it prepares us to watch for a number of truths happening side-by-side in the remainder of the book. I'm reminded of the art of Gordon Matta-Clark, who spent his time "decapitating roofs, scoring and extracting infrastructures, emphasizing internal structures through extraction, displacement, alteration, workings on buildings without constructing inside the structure between the walls, removing special points of stress, opening spaces and redistributing the mass." Matta-Clark removed the front of houses, so that we might see the house inside. He removed roofs, so that we might see down into the house. Light comes in, and the house, from a bird's eye view, is a series of geometric shapes receding. We see the house and its bones brought to light. We see more than the house. Likewise, in The Escape, we see writing and more than writing. We see an identity emerging.

Wasserman moves from the preparatory prose of "Memoria" into her "First Enkomion Sequence." In the ancient understanding of the term, the enkomion is a sub-genre of the choral lyric, which traditionally required a chorus who would sing and dance. The enkomion was invented to praise human accomplishments. In Wasserman's case, she develops a small dance between mother and daughter and sometimes father. She moves from the cryptic to the specific, and her praise of human accomplishments takes the form of descriptions of family photographs. The chorus is sometimes played by a therapist, and the gods are several, as we discover in the following enkomion:

over & away large but
rolling
distant
way beyond
the lawn, the basketball hoop & Dairy Queen

god

and

          sometimes my father would scream about
where does the money go and you would have the down-smile
slowly I learned about mythology and the tall tales
and how you could be punished and spend half the
year in the underworld which seemed very bad like
underwear something always getting dirty
needed laundering
so I asked my father what underworld was and he
said he was Jewish and there was no underworld
for him and I asked if there was underworld for you

We find a little of the mother's underworld in the middle of The Escape, where there lies a number of marvelous and excruciating sestinas. The mother is the "you" with whom the speaker confuses herself over and over again, for the duration of the collection, as in "Nature Corrected By Hummingbird":

it places us a little distance from the stucco steps, easier
to make out, the middle is me and my grandmother, circles of a heart
except she is younger, mouth like a small violet, can't be my birthday
but my mother's birthday, the air raids real and quick-heart hummingbird
the boy who is too young moves out of the photo, reaching strawberries
which my grandfather tore out in the 1960s there was just not enough sun

One of the most memorable sestinas, "Betty And Dick Tour The U.S.A.," introduces the rift between the mother and the father and the camp of Americana:

my mother's coat was too small, so ugly she hated it not the right outfit you
     can see that
right away, Betty and Dick leave Hollywood for Miami where they see an
     orange
grove and everything while my little mother cut an L shape from the coat's
     back but had to wear it anyway

The sestina is an ideal form for this familial deliberation, with its repeated six words pounding out a memory. In a poem about the mother's funeral, for example, we find "salt," "roast, "nest," "storm," kitchen," and "sour"; when the speaker puzzles out the fact of the holocaust while she travels with her mother into the city, she uses "stilettos," "root canal," "real life," "wintergreen," "newest," and "gray." Each poem conjugates an experience, sometimes a disaster, and the entire collection gives rise to various scenarios for the word "escape":

"to get away"
"to issue from confinement"
"to run wild from cultivation"
"to avoid a threatening evil"
"to fail to be noticed"
"to be uttered involuntarily by"
"to issue from"

The last of these is perhaps the most important meaning for the title word. Offering a meticulous fusion of independent clauses and enjambment, Wasserman's sestinas create the jarring of language, the appropriate fits and starts, for a characterization of a difficult relationship between speaker and mother:

the photo in the park, after thirty minutes or so, shows her sickly white
poaching on a bench, officially shivering in August under her camel hair
     coat, smoking
of course later she laughed, light-hearted, "did I have a dress with yellow
flowers? I have no idea who this is," she looked at this part of the picture,
     "a stranger?"
she said like it was a detective trip, "I wish I knew who was holding the
     baby
in this one. I can't imagine that I didn't have my eye on her," but she is
     alone,shivering in the park
(from "If The Baby Comes")

The mother doesn't recognize herself as much as the speaker sees herself in the mother in these sestinas and in the photographs they re-tell. There exists a superimposition of the history of the mother and the history of her child, the speaker.

Wasserman leads us out of The Escape with a "Second Enkomion Sequence" and a closing prose poem, mirroring how she began the collection. In the penultimate enkomion we learn that the mother has not escaped her life even in the disaster of her death. Her child refuses her escape:

I say, "if I did everything,
I knew I would find you
even though I saw your purse charred by explosion
and the car and Cathy was hurt for a long time
but is better now."
and then I say, "I knew"
but you look through me
toward the waiter and begin ordering

Perhaps the only way to make a break for it where parents and children are concerned is for the child to go ahead and become the parent. In the final enkomion the speaker eclipses the mother:

so it continues choosing, unchoosing
so many times I can't write them all
far out there
so away as to remain,
temporarily, unseen
but today, right here,
ordering this salad
thinking "screw the no-wheat diet,
I will have the confit over pasta"
a flame-flash
we eclipse perfectly

Wasserman's collection ends with the title poem, another dazzling excursion in prose. The poet Killarney Clary has explained the feel and tension of a prose poem in a personal anecdote: She says that when she visits her mother, say, for a period of three days, they'll go about the business of visiting, but when she is leaving the house, her mother will suddenly tell her everything she meant to say during the whole visit. That's what a prose poem's dramatic tension feels like. It's what someone's been meaning to say for days, maybe years, and the words spill out in a matter of minutes. This explanation suits Wasserman's prose poetry uncannily well. At the close of The Escape, mother and child are saying their goodbyes outside the house, only it's the mother who's on her way home:

He rolls down the window and yells for her to get in the car, "Enough's enough," he says. I say, "Well, I guess you better get going," and she turns back toward the car and says to him, "I'm going. I'm going."

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents