1st Place Winner for Poetry in the Wordwrite Book Awards 2016
Reviewed by Lynn Houston
Ellen McGrath Smith’s book of poetry, Nobody’s Jacknife, is a brilliantly executed poetry-memoir. A hybrid text in many sections, it intertwines prose poetry with verse (and excerpts from other works) in order to document, in the first section, coming-of-age moments in which a child becomes aware that she has an identity outside of her family unit, and as she becomes aware of the gendered lens through which she is seen by the rest of the world.
What flag can a teenage girl fly that isn’t already translucent,
x-rayed by the sun, its diurnal laws, golden gavels, ramrod
pillars of heat and becoming?. . .
Section two (and beyond) follows this female speaker into adulthood, where the lessons of her childhood play out in her romantic relationships and her own experiences of motherhood.
One of the major themes of this collection is the practice of yoga, how the speaker’s mother teaches her to do various positions at a young age. The speakers’ memories of and reflections on life are rooted in those yoga poses. And I mean “rooted”: this collection is about how to bloom in a hostile landscape after you’ve tried, and failed (as a child), to find wings.
As a poetry memoir, this is a book of relationship poems. But these are not recollections from an insulated middle-class lifestyle, the kind often associated with yoga. In a few of Smith’s poem, she talks very frankly about troubled economics, even the high price that practitioners pay for the services of a Yogi. Instead, the practice of yoga becomes a way of narrating the body’s role in its own existence, its grounding in space—literally, in one poem, folding a map like a body.
My east surrenders to my west: sun is setting,
houses, faces, facts forgotten;
the day dissolves into skin-creases.
Chin against the shin—long razor-bone;
breasts on kneecap—rainclouds, stones.
Surrender to the time the body measures
and the time that measured breath refers to
far beyond the body. My north
and my south have never known
each other’s worth; I fold the map.
Baseball is another major theme in the collection that helps draw out the politics of gender and race that undergird Smith’s work—the speaker is a precocious young woman with a conflicted relationship with her father; she documents her initial exposures to sexism and racism. Referring to a baseball game when Puerto Rican outfielder Roberto Clemente was playing, Smith’s speaker narrates:
is what you put down for a strikeout. One time,
some fans draped a banner at the stadium
consisting of three Ks. It gave me chills when I first saw it,
but all it meant was they were rooting for the pitcher
to retire a whole inning’s worth of batters.
The conditions of her childhood are a through-line that establish the tone of her sexual encounters into adulthood, set against the race riots of the late ‘60s. The gender dynamics of her childhood—her understanding of her father and her time with her brothers and childhood friends—set her up for troubled relationships later on, but at the same time they provide her with a nearly idyllic beginning—her innocence, the amount of time she spends in nature, observing it. The practice of yoga is the dividing line between the child and the adult, a separation bridged by kinds of knowing that involve the body, ones where she is more in control of her physical experience than in other activities.
Ultimately, Nobody’s Jacknife affirms that sitting still is an act of self-love and empowerment, that stillness is necessary for one to take root and bloom.