Howl by Alan Ginsberg begins with one of the most iconic lines in American poetry:
My girlfriend has never been to California.
We lie awake at night, snow falling softly outside the window of our ski-town cabin. Cozy under the blankets, we stare at the flakes obscuring the bright mountain stars, and wonder about someplace else.
“California is the sort of place where it seems like anything can happen,” I tell her. “We’ll go there, someday.”
This is the sort of exchange which underlies Jennifer Denrow’s audacious book of poetry, “California.” Denrow is a young American poet from my home state of Colorado. As with all modern poetry, her work is obscure except in certain circles. I’m doing my little bit to change that.
The title poem, “California” is my favorite piece of poetry.
“California” is broken up into three sections. The first is a long poem titled “California.” This is the gem of the book. The second section consists of more traditional, shorter verses. This section, like many poetry collections, is rather hit-or-miss. The third section consists of a back-and-forth dialogue between ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie. This section struck me as too avant-garde. Perhaps I lacked the proper context to understand the subtext of this section, but it never clicked for me. It doesn’t matter though.
Section 1, the “California” poem, is worth the price of admission alone.
“California” is a poem about escapism and the lingering dissatisfaction of modern life. The opening lines of the poem state this mission well enough:
“Forget Your life
Okay, I have
Lay down something that is unlike it
Sold boat, Italian song”
The poem goes on for 19 pages, and it continues to expand beautifully and elliptically on the abstract idea of California as a stand-in for satisfaction, exotica, and adventure in our everyday lives, which find themselves dulling more and more as computer slowly remove the very essence of living from many situations.
I won’t transcribe the whole thing here, because Denrow is a young poet who very much deserves your money. I encountered this book during an advanced undergraduate course I took, “E 479: Modern American Poetry.” The class was taught by Dan Beachy-Quick, himself a successful modern American poet. Beachy-Quick is the closest thing you’ll encounter to a genius at a state university, and I’ll always hold a respect for the man. His rambling nature of speaking made going to class every day absolutely worth it, just to hear the strange tangents he could touch on and still leave you with something of value. He told us to go buy a random book of modern poetry off of Amazon, because the library wouldn’t have anything and the authors appreciated every purchase they could get.
So I’ll repeat this man’s great message: buy Denrow’s book. Both of you and she will appreciate it.
The book is melancholy, looking inward and outward simultaneously as it explores the concept of leaving. “California” tiptoes past suicide, depression, and the spectre of a rapidly receding youth with gorgeous, deadly quiet lines.
I’ve written academic criticism on the poem, but that defeats the point, really. Read it yourself, and then think on it for a few days. Think about California.
(If you’d like to purchase the book, you can throw TWO poor writers a bone by buying it through my Amazon affiliate link)