When first diving into Jen Currin’s The Inquisition Yours (Coach House), I found myself explicating line by line, approaching her poetry like a puzzle, sure I would understand if only I found the key.
Often, I approach surrealist poetry this way; part of the joy of reading surrealist poetry is the game of it, the reward being what Tony Hoagland refers to in Real Sofistikashun as “the exhilarating pleasure of being smart in concert with the speaker.”
In The Inquisition Yours, the deluge of images and dialogue at some points leave you nodding, and at others, frustrated at feeling like you’ve somehow missed the boat, left to bob along in the unending stream of discord. You find yourself entering in the first poem, “Sock Martyrs,” where perhaps a warning lies in the lines: “All vowels are owls and bread, wine. / In constant battle with my written self, / I had to agree.”
However, if the reader can make peace with the fact that the poems often deny a full and tidy interpretation, there is a wealth of meaning and significance that becomes evident in the maelstrom that is this collection.
The Inquisition Yours may resist interpretation by the poem, at times even the line, and yet it speaks volumes about the age in which we live, reflects from its surface the never ending vortex of paradoxical truths found in the lives of current day Americans in lines like:
“Helicopters overhead— / spied on by the stupidest fathers” and “We frisk ourselves. The airport neutral;” naming in the same poem our quandaries and our complicity in them. It positions itself within this reality that forces us to exchange the multiple masks of our varied and disconnected lives instantaneously in lines like “I’ll say this now, / then go home and think differently” or “I won’t be who you remember. / We’ll masquerade as acquaintances / for a few blank moments.”
Then there are moments of ascetic beauty in lines such as “Lightning cracks the jar of night,” but these moments are few and far between. On the whole, the lyricism and imagery are limited, often basic. What is compelling are the overall themes, the continuous motion of Currin’s poetry, ever shifting and flickering that reveals an overall suspicion of our times, the government, our own moral convictions. It’s refusal to kowtow to language in any traditional manner is a refusal to bow to this ever closing society that uses counter-terrorism efforts as an excuse to strip the foundational rights of its citizens, while simultaneously mocking them as she instructs the reader to someday “look for this book in flames.”
There may be little puzzle here to put together from poem to poem, but there’s endless fodder for thought that leads the reader to inspect the multi-headed beast that lurks among us scrutinizing our behaviors, our communications, our bank accounts.
Currin’s use of surrealism cannot be mistaken for fad or fashion. It is an intriguing and brilliant denial of the core purpose of language to communicate and in so doing is illuminating in an intellectual and visceral way. Her poetry is a subversion of the dominant paradigms in this country, lays bare the negligence of the idea that language can ever contain only one meaning and brings to light the choices implied in these layers. “Authority has an ‘author’ in it,” she quips, reminding us that authority is something created and maintained rather than the god-given right the longstanding hierarchies of class, race and gender imply.
She reminds us of the cost of consumerism to the care of our spiritual and physical selves collectively; “A suitcase can be filled with money / & so can your mind.” Her poem “New Security Technologies” points to some of the lure of that money for personal gain, in that the inconveniences of big brother’s surveillance can be sidestepped by the rich and powerful, thereby purchasing their silent complicity of the mugging of our rights;
Iris scanner for travelers who want to fast-track
For residents of condominiums
for state employees without hands
for high-end European nightclub frequenters.
In no way is this book for the casual connoisseur of poetry and if you delight in the sort of pay off some surrealist poetry can offer, you’ll likely find yourself at odds with this poetry. But if you can let go of your preconceptions, it promises to be one ride that will leave you gripping both sides of the canoe. Inhabiting Currin’s poetry is “to inhabit the half-destroyed buildings of thought” and to “merely [grab] at the irreparable / as the incomparable present strolls by” in the vestiges of a postmodern, postindustrial world where anyone can be a spy, a terrorist, a monk or a martyr, and death awaits in every turn.