Thursday, November 30, 2006



The End of Rude Handles by Jen Tynes
(Red Morning Press, 2006)

In The End of Rude Handles, Jen Tynes faces the problem of presenting a coherent picture of a world that's shattered as soon as she tries to explain it or, as she puts it in the poem that precedes Part I ("ALL MAY BE MERGED"), "When I snap pictures tender soars apart at the roots". She attempts to "enfold the brimming object to you" by presenting a series of apparently complete shards connected by more open maps. Small rooms and scenes, which visually resemble traditional short poems, alternate with more open compositions that serve as diagrams of the spaces in between. It's important to look at the relationships between the pieces and pages, because according to the acknowledgments section at the front, this book is to be regarded as a long poem.

The more traditional-appearing poem-pieces on the left-hand pages give us short scenes or spaces--slices of time and space. These spaces range from hopeful to violent with mundane transgressions elevated by Tynes' rich use of language.

As its title implies, "HOUSES ARE STILL STANDING" is the most hopeful section of the long poem. It's a love poem about two people who have passed through a strangely animated landscape. Their journey ends in trust, symbolized by the speaker taking the addressee's hand, despite the disappearance of "solid article[s]".

Violent poems stand out more, some using the color red to connect blood, violence, and passion. In "IT IS NOW AMONG ADULTS", "A stripped switch / / [that] eventually brings blood" and "Little pots / of fire" are contrasted with the gray "crepuscular machine [that] give[s] / out". Only the bloody and burning lasts. Later, after spending ten lines on cheerful neighborhood children and leaving on the lights in "CONVERGING INTO THE GROUPS AND CENTERS", the poet admits

I take a bundle
of sticks and redden
their ankles if they misbehave

It's difficult not to read the Roman fasces into this.

The color red is only implied in the menstrual blood that appears at the start of another, seemingly untitled, section:

Dark splatter
or seep along
my pantleg is animal
in nature

An animal natural implies instinctual violence and sexuality and, once again, this is connected to blood.

Violence, of course, can also be against animals, as in "THE RECOLLECTION OF AN OBJECT FORMED FROM IT":

I watch a cat sleeping

on your chest then tossed
across the sunporch.

The grammatical construction protects the poet from having to name the human perpetrator of this violence and, in doing so, draws the reader's attention to the person who did it.

Finally, violence overlaps with mundane transgressions in "THE KEEN UNPASSIONED BEAUTY OF THE GREAT MACHINE". The three who keep eating the speaker "til gone" add a chill to what would would otherwise be an eccentric picture of someone's odd old grandmother: "Your ornery biddy / saves bones." Alternatively, the presence of a the comical "biddy" makes the transgression of murder or of collecting pieces of the dead mundane.

But there are far more mundane transgressions highlighted and celebrated in this long poem. One section begins with apparent synaesthesia, sight being tasted, since you don't eat lanterns:

Taste of
your supper,

are like

but later you realize that it perhaps isn't synaesthesia, as you're presented an act of transgressive eating:

. . . Chew
on good blades,
feast in dry


Mundane, however, does not mean unimportant. "Between times" mentions the "small business" that one deals with between the more dramatic, apparently important things. Tynes subtly undermines the belief that such commonplace things don't matter by asking "what am I / supposed to cover next?" as "Sashes // ceremoniously gather around" her, suggesting the expected appearance of something "significant", worth putting on stage.

Moreover, even mundane transgressions are significant, because

Even a herd of cattle

on borrowed land
knows dissension, makes eyes.

Every small act of defiance is detectable and can change the attitude of the crowd.

The spaces of such trespasses are stitched together by open field compositions that are brief enough and leave enough blank space to violate the appearance of a traditional volume of poetry. Appropriately, the phrases in these pieces are often the names of quilt designs: "Gentleman's Fancy" and "Sunrise on the Walls of Troy", for instance.

These right-hand page maps start out as simply phrases thrown like guideposts on a mostly blank background, signs in the wilderness between meaning-laden scenes. In the second half of this book (Parts III and IV), the addition of phrases or whole pieces in all caps suggests an increasing distance between sites of meaning--one that requires shouting or telegrams.

The first exception to the pattern of short poem/scene on the left side with diagram on the right comes in the first section and starts with the line "An open box is a signal". This is appropriate enough, given that the break in the pattern consists of the left-hand poem being visually opened up with extra space between lines.

So what is this opening a signal of? If the poem's next line is to be believed-- and since we are in its world, we really have no choice but to believe it--friendship. Friendship is both an opening up (of oneself to another) and a sewing together (of two once more separate individuals). The spaces between lines here give us an opportunity to insert ourselves more fully into the world of the poem. The aspect of being sewn together is represented once again by quilt names and by the next page being, once again, a traditional more put-together poem. Having once entered a poem, the closed-appearing poem includes us rather than excluding us, even as

To pass on

their dialect
Delegates shackle

the tongue.

Meaning being reliant on some degree of shared language, the possibilities thereof must to some degree be limited. Finally, the alternating pattern is reestablished with a diagram leading into Part II.

The second break dedicates a full two page spread before the concluding, eponymous poem, as if that final, as if that long promised goal were more distant from its neighbors than the rest of the slices of Tynes' lush world are. In keeping with the theme of the importance of the mundane, however, this last poem does not stray from the representations of hope, violence, and transgression but rather compresses them all into its final lines:

I burn my own

mark into each animal
long after thinking it.

The mundane act of branding is pondered like a serious transgression: ideas and claims must be thoroughly thought through before being staked out as one's own, especially if the animal has been considered someone else's-- and we have no reason to believe they are not. Moreover, it is inherently violent to brand an animal, as the verb "burn" emphasizes. Nonetheless, the act of branding is full of hope at least for the one who enacts it, as it represents a belief in a future time when that mark will matter to the one who made it.

Tynes does follow this long poem of hopeful, violent, mundane poems that appear traditional stitched together by open field compositions with a statement of poetics, "Ways of Contrariness" that could be taken as an act of branding. But, unlike so many such statements, it never veers into abrasive manifesto and never becomes as painful to the reader as the act of branding is to the subjected animal.


Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a small press poet, an ESL teacher, a kimono copywriter, an ex-expat, an amateur aerial acrobat, a Seattle native, and a Brooklyn resident. She blogs at


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