The Escape by Jo Ann Wasserman
Experimental poetry often speaks a secret language, one that offers multiple, reflective paths to meaning. Such work normally opposes itself to mainstream lyrical poetry in which memory and autobiographical detail might be employed to sum up one of life’s truths. Of course, these two trends are not always so easily distinguished, nor should they be. Jo Ann Wasserman’s collection, The Escape, presents us with a wonderful complication of experimental and lyric impulses. Though the three-part collection whirls around the real-life tragedy of her mother’s death, Wasserman never tells that story outright. The death functions as the work’s creative center but Wasserman moves skillfully beyond her story to explore the boundaries of poetry, memory, and the self.
The book’s first section is a collection of notes, dated non-sequentially from 1990 to 1999. These, it is explained, are culled from the writer’s notebooks and they tell primarily of failed attempts to write. This is not the least courageous revelation in a book that speaks of many things the poet “risks knowing only in poems," including difficulties with alcohol and an eating disorder as well as a mother’s death. Most writers would prefer the world saw only finished work, hiding the failures that go along with its production. Wasserman, however, opens up her writing process, telling her reader, “I understand that I am trying to write a message sounded out in the body.” Her effort often boils down to the simple repetition of her desire to write, prayers offered over and over until they are answered, until she writes a poem:
Everything is like a poem because a poem is secret and I am the pleading medium. I stand here to make a translation, pleasing to everyone.
The attempt to write is also an attempt to deal with memory and emotion in innovative ways. Wasserman avoids the confessional lyric’s strategy of summary and conclusion by reflecting on the process of turning memory into art. She quotes Benjamin on the inadequacy of recounting "the way it really was" and Proust on the presence of the past in material objects. She stakes out her philosophical and literary territory in order to examine what lies between past and present, intellect and the physical body. Wasserman claims the space between what is felt and what is written as the space of her poetry.
The divide between the "me" and the "you" of the poems proves the one most difficult to navigate. This mother-daughter confrontation takes place outside of any linear narrative and, as in the French feminist Helene Cixous’s concept of feminine writing, Wasserman refuses the binary opposition of the two. Here, daughter creates mother as mother creates daughter. We see just how eternally inseparable they are in moments like the one where the speaker confesses herself, “confused about whether my horoscope means something for me/or you (same birth sign).” The writing spirals in and around a meeting of mother and daughter, drawing it out, pointing to the impossibility of containing it within any one memory, image, or story.
The poems gather strength as they venture deeper into the book’s most difficult material, the mother’s death in a car crash. It is in the sestinas that dominate the first and second sections that Wasserman achieves her most breathtaking writing. The order of end-words in this form is strictly regulated but no rhyme is required and the lines can be of any length. This mixture of restriction and freedom is perfect for Wasserman’s work and she uses it to its fullest. Her lines are long, which can lead a reader to forget that the poem is in form at all, and yet the form is there, holding the many threads those lines pursue in a maternal embrace. Among the sestinas are several of particular power that touch on the funerals bracketing one summer of the writer’s life. In “Funeral/July,” the obsessive repetition of the phrase “wasp’s nest” carries all the menace of a death while arrays of soggy food bear the weary sadness of the mother’s funeral in “An Estimation of Losing her Work.”
“It all runs back to the body eventually,” Wasserman tells us. In The Escape we find the experimental focus on thought and language running back to the emotional body of the poet; we find life as it is lived forever bound to the thought that springs from it. Wasserman achieves this intermingling of opposing forces with skill and subtle beauty. In The Escape she has created a rigorous and deeply moving poetic work.
The Escape by Jo Ann Wasserman