I’ve known and enjoyed the work of Tom Jenks for a few years – both his output as editor/publisher of literary objects imprint zimZalla and as writer of gloriously distinctive prose poetry. Before rhubarb I have enjoyed his and Catherine Vidler’s constraint construction Pack My Box with Five Dozen Liquor Jugs, a playful ‘zany and zanier’ collaboration – though its undoubted cleverness is framed still in a way the writing in rhubarb isn’t.
rhubarb, from the wonderful and prolific experimental Beir Bua Press, is a ‘collection of a number of pieces written over a number of years’ and it has been interesting to trace what appears to be a range of styles built around a fundamental oblique and surreal world of Jenks’ writing.
I must, however, immediately challenge my dual categorising of this: neither is quite right, and ‘surreal’ has of late acquired an assault on its suggestiveness, usually by sportspeople interviewed on TV who have just achieved significant success and acknowledgement through their literal skills and dedication who still describe this as ‘surreal’ (when it is patently, and brilliantly, absolutely real). Therefore, I’d have to add/qualify that his writing is inventive, quirky, constantly surprising and signature.
I know best these signature prose poems that I encounter on social media postings, always happy to come across by chance and know I will definitely enjoy, smiling immediately at that first and then subsequent poetic shifts into the unexpected and unique.
The title poem of this collection takes us into a rhubarb world of ‘classic’ Jenks’ knowing, giving the vegetable a life beyond most of our imaginings, and introducing Stanley who knows even more. The ingredients, for example, of a ‘neutralising cordial’ involving rhubarb are revealed with the clarity of this further fascinating knowing.
The opening poem eyebrows exemplifies from the off the ‘peculiar’ narrative journeys we take as readers. Its first two stanzas
‘When I return from my walk across the fields,
my mother trims my eyebrows with the kitchen scissors.
They grow two centimetres every day.
The air is fertile out here in the country.’
launch us toward the sublime concluding visual of the curate ‘on his bicycle’ and the condition of his eyebrows. An ‘overlooked nineteenth century Russian novelist’ is the subject of the poem not so far, Fyodor and it is a tragedy, truly.
In when it gets dark, I fetch my special spoon we learn about the curing potency of UHT milk and a sponge as well as the connection (with Christmas approaching?) to ‘goose fat and memories’.
The poem hedge in its entirety speaks volumes about passion
‘We have planted a hedge at the edge of the fields. It grows a little
each day, like an ardour. At night we stand either side of it and
picture it seven feet tall, with a ditch.’
Where would you, as reader, imagine these opening lines from song from a forest will take you
‘What can I do with him, he is so randy,
hairy hands in the mayonnaise.’
I am wondering on behalf of Michael Bolton, by the way.
There is a comparative longpoem core in this collection Walt Disney is sending us letters, and it intrigues by sustained revelations that are absurd and comic and disturbing. There is a knight and there is WD and are either likely to be heroic?
There is another long and wise poem the baby that offers advice to those who anticipate and then have a baby. Surprisingly, there is some normal advice offered…
A favourite line from another poem:
‘I saw a dog that was entirely see through’
This brisk collection is an absolute delight. The storytelling is always fresh, and I have such huge respect for the imaginative depth with which Jenks sustains this. I’ve read many others who have tried to emulate – having a go myself – and speaking personally, it is upsetting to realise how impossible it is. I think of Matthew Sweeney and Ian Seed who also have their signature approaches in poetic narrative (as well as their failing imitators: OK, me again) and Tom Jenks is a bright light in that triumvirate.
Review by Mike Ferguson @omahaglenn