The Dream of Reason

Jenny George
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by Warren Woessner

The introduction to this debut collection of poetry by Jenny George notes that the title of a famed etching by Goya can be translated as “The dream of reason produces monsters.” Many of the poems, while not describing the monsters that we know from horror movies, bear burdens that are every bit as scary, or at least disrupt what we have come to accept as our ordered world. The opening poem, “Origins of Violence,” warns the reader of the dark sides that George explores with relentless vision and imagery:

There is a hole.
In the hole is everything
people will do
to each other.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

People will do anything.
They will cut the hands off children.
Children will do anything—

In the hole is everything.

But children are not merely brutalized victims in these poems. Occasionally, they die; more often, asleep or awake, children are messengers that deliver elemental mysteries George attempts to decipher: “I say: the soul enters [us]/through childhood.”

In George’s eye, the central victims are domestic animals—cows, horses, lambs, and pigs. Pigs get an entire section of this collection and appear in other poems as well. Epigraphs to three of the poems are taken from “manuals on industrial livestock management” and the cruelty inherent in this “management” of pigs drives these poems. “The Farrowing Crate,” for example, describes how a pregnant sow is contained in a narrow “cage-like gestation unit”:

For months she points in one direction
A zeppelin bumbling toward the rising sun.
She drinks from her spigot.
She is big as a doorstep.
They say she doesn’t know she cannot turn around.

Most of the pigs in these poems are being driven into the slaughter house, but even after death, George finds images that are both stark and graceful, as in “Ears”:

The pig is already dead.
It hangs from the ankle,
slumped as light
through a heavy curtain.

While the industrial management of pigs exemplifies the commonplace violence most readers would rather not confront, George skillfully delves into our mortality as well. In “Death of a Child” she writes:

It made a boy-shaped hole
and filled—

the way a crushed hand fills
suddenly up
with new pain,

or a well put down
taps the liquid silt.

Finally, George seems to say, for both the living and the dead: “The mouth draws up / clay / and drinks.”

Not all the imagery in this collection is so dark. Birds suffuse the poems with motion and freedom; there are jays, crows, and swallows in the barn, and in the “Harvest” section of the title poem,

A quick net of starlings
drops to the furrows
and sunshine pouts like polished grain
onto the feeding earth,
this country.

In “New World,” George goes so far as to envision a sort of peaceful kingdom in which

There are no slaughterhouses.
The glittering river has seeped
back into the healed earth.
The fields are wrung dry,
and laid out like a flag.

Nonetheless, George has the ability to cross easily from day to night, from sleep to wakefulness, and from death to life—and she knows how to use it, as in “Sword Swallower”:

Sleep: that ancient union
Of death with its body.

The child sleeps.
as in—the child returns
to the time before her body.

It is hard to imagine the journeys that George’s poetry will take as her horizons expand, but one thing is certain: The Dream of Reason reveals a young poet who is unafraid to explore difficult territory.

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