» Book Review

Revelation and Resistance

The Light of What Comes After by Jen Town

Bauhan Publishing, 2018

96 pages, paperback, $16.00


Cover of Jen Town's The Light of What Comes After.


Lately I have heard folks in positions of power tell young people to go in fear of irony, that irony is a hiding place for the chronically disengaged and disenchanted, that it signals a deep cynicism when what we need is earnest, active resistance in an increasingly hostile world.


I have a simple quibble with this: without irony there would be no poetry, and without poetry there is no resistance.


Okay, maybe I am oversimplifying.


Maybe what I mean to say is, our language—by its very nature—is chock-full of contradiction, complication, subversion, and elision, but it is with language that we must communicate who we are and who we wish to be.


There is an irony here, and it is the poet’s job to expose it.


Irony, at its best, teases out the difficulties inherent in language and—by extension—in the self’s formation. It is a subtle art and requires a deft hand. Jen Town has such a hand.


“I’ve often been accused of being a latchkey with no latch,” says the speaker in Town’s poem “Spun,” which, like many in her award-winning debut collection The Light of What Comes After, addresses the formation of identity through mediation and speculation.


The I of these poems is shaped in response to social and cultural expectations, creating inside itself a metaphysical window—not to be confused with an emptiness, but rather an opportunity, an opening between representation and reality, like a “space in the air where the ballerina momentarily spun.”


I say opportunity, because Town’s poems provide just that—a new way of seeing, a slant (to reference Dickinson, one of Town’s foremothers) way of exploring a young woman’s coming of age among books, movies, art—from a well-intentioned but sheltered childhood, to the sometimes-hard truths of life as an American woman.


These ironies aggregate throughout the book, are pasted and layered across the self with decoupage artistry. There are accusations in poems “Short Autobiography on Tiptoes” (“she’d been accused to of being too much and always / in earnest”) and “Spun” (“I’ve often been accused of being a latchkey with no latch”) as well as the consequences of growing up “to believe / in the essential good” (“Short Autobiography on Tiptoes”).


In fact, in The Light of What Comes After, “goodness” and “happiness”—two touchstones of a virtuous, Midwestern upbringing—are repeatedly turned over and re-examined, questioned, and prodded, as we see in the poem “Invisible Self-Portraits in a Dark Room”:


 I believe myself to be

 a sympathetic character

 but formed to what

 purpose, I’m not sure.


Even more interestingly, in the world of Town’s poems, the self is not only created in the crucible of societal expectations but in the conventions of genre like autobiography, self-portrait, still life, romance, spy novel—poetics the self has internalized and re-contextualized.


For example, in “Needles Piercing Cloth,” Town writes,


 It was a world of décolletage,

 the diaphanous thrills


 of forgetting—lily skin

 draped in spring and sugar


 sifting through fingers—pollen’s

 golden settling on footstool


 and ottoman, pie rack

 and ice box. A world of garden

 walls aflame with bloom.


There is undeniable beauty in the configuration of these artifacts, in the positioning of sensual, musical language, but it is a scene without people. Then (emphasis mine),


 and yet: inside we drifted like

 smoked bees in a silence


 through which clocks

 ticked, sound of silver needles


 piercing cloth.


The latent violence becomes palpable via domesticity—the surface belies an underground tension. We peer beneath the female-centric, superficial benevolence (needlepoint and décolletage) to see the worry underneath, a technique found again in “Charming,” which opens with, “Her father says You’re living in a fairy tale,” and ends with:


 … She gathers flowers by

 the roadside, weaves them into a rope for her escape. They shrivel and

 curl up into tiny fists, a string of fists that blow apart in the wind.


These are poems that are at once in love with language and at odds with it—as we all must be. Town’s ear for prosody is playful, physical. Her lines are masterful. But what I love most about Town’s poetry is its subtlety. The poems’ balance between despair and delight is so elegantly calibrated, so delicately fashioned, so utterly attentive to the small fractures, fissures, disappointments, and fleeting joys of adulthood, that one could say Town’s sensitivity to language is preternatural and that her nuanced, delightfully subversive voice is a revelation. So, let me say it: Town’s The Light of What Comes After is a revelation.


She—like many of us—was a girl who grew up to be a woman, both charmed by the trimmings and trappings of her gender’s norms and highly critical of them. She faces the gaps between expectations and realities with a wry wit and realizes—rightly so—that who we think we are and who others think we are—creates a tension rife with both humor and pain. This is resistance.


Town’s poems aren’t for the faint-hearted, though they are very much the product of a delicate sensibility.


Oh, the irony!


Lesley Jenike

Lesley Jenike’s poems and essays have appeared or will appear soon in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Rattle, Verse, and many other journals. Her most recent collection is Punctum, a chapbook of poems published by Kent State University Press in 2017. She teaches at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio.