An Introduction to Jefferson Navicky by Virginia Konchan

Jefferson Navicky’s five poems form an arc of childhood and young adult remembrance, family history, and tempered nostalgia, juxtaposed with the perspective and judicious craft of a skilled poet whose vivid, painterly, and deeply felt tableaux evoke the very sensations, experiences, and emotions of youth: parental inheritance, search for vocation, the pressure to perform athletically, memories of a now-defunct discount store founded on a flood plain, and vision and dental issues that become the source of his last poem about the trials of growing into one’s body and selfhood, “Self-Portrait in Glass, Wire, & Chrome.” The penultimate stanza reads:

“My head hung forward with the weight of oncoming adolescence,
a train whose whistle I heard in the distance, its arrival inevitable
no matter the station or time table, and whose freight once unloaded
and layered into my body, would make this scaffolding seem simple.”

The “scaffolding” Navicky describes (ostensibly, glasses then teeth-correcting “hardware”) is both literal as well as metapoetic: a poem draft, or a life draft (in youth), the scaffolding that paves the way from our awkward, nascent attempts at literature, and becoming a person, to the being-becoming—the material manifestation—that later unfolds on the page and in life. Moving from an appointment as a child with his grandfather, an optometrist, “alphabet tumbling across the screen,” to a pleasant drive together back to his grandfather’s house, “beneath / the Sunday spring trees,” the poet declares, in a line full of polyvalent resonances, “soon I would see.”

Louise Gluck wrote in her poem “Nostos”: “We see the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” Navicky’s five poems, taken together, are a testimony to the true seeing that occurs when we have the patience and discipline to reenter our formative experiences, in memory.

The poet’s monastic vocation is made humorous in Navicky’s poem “Why I Became a Nun,” a gender-bending poem that outlines first the speaker’s hypothetical unsuitability, written in the stars, for secular or “normal” life: “Without a single planet in my inner quadrant / I had to do something, so when I showed a talent / for nothing, my parents shuttled me off / to the convent.” Yet the following lines suggest the speaker was sent to a convent, but rather the armed forces: “I studied hard, ate beef, / took my driver’s test in an American-made / tank, and readied myself for the open road.” These contradictions explode into comedy in the poems’ fourth and last stanza:

[. . . ]                                   You’re pretty good,
Mother Theresa told me, like some combination
of Larry Bird, Fraulein Maria, and Bartleby the Scrivener.
Though she said Scribbler, and so I spent my life
writing out these lines in a near-illegible script
that no one will read anyway except maybe god.

Navicky displays his penchant for the tender humor borne of wry contradiction in the folio’s opening poem as well, “His Other Life,” about the life the speaker’s father might have led, had he not met the speaker’s mother, a poem inspired by John Harlow’s photographs in the Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial. The poem begins, “My father wouldn’t like these pictures, /

because they portray a poverty / he escaped through my mother / and her doctor father.” The anaphoric phrase “I could see him” populates the poem, as it imagines the starving artist life his father would lead if fate had led him otherwise: “I could see him / making sculptures out of chicken wire and an old / lawn mower”; “I could see him building ornate doghouses / that take up the entire backyard.” Navicky’s imaginative powers, paternal sympathies, and also profound realizing of what it takes to make art, or art of life, cut to the core when he describes the man his father might have been as “my other father, / a borderline hoarder, it’s not hard to imagine / his electric shut off, because he decided / fuck it, I don’t need it, a bowie knife / next to his bed, cars out in the yard, / spray paint on his windows, surrounded by dogs / lucky enough to be an artist.”

In “Three-Point Shooter” and “Zayre’s,” Navicky enters more deeply into the somatic memories of youth: training at basketball, and recollections of a discount store, now closed, through which creek water used to run, being founded on a flood plain: “the creek loved to creep through the rear / door to usher in its brown water.” Navicky’s muscular syntax and deft musicality sings:

“Flame’s one thing, but flood like that is slow pain, rising inches
an hour until it’s all sunk down there, the underwater aisle of each action
figure encased in its plastic shield, muscled leg, separate gun, swimming among
mud and fishes, the muck not fun, my head atop each one.”

As in “His Other Life,” Navicky showcases his ability to remember, and imagine, differently, leaning into not only the sensory, evocative powers of the lyric, but also its powers of recreation, in imagining the alternative life his dad might have led, or Zayre’s immersed fully under water. Toward the end, he gestures to where this formative memory of nature overrunning commerce has brought him today, to a place where he is filled by nature, but also mature love and life:

“But I’m too old for toys now anyway, I’m flooded by love now, by wood,
by cats, I’m flooded by a mountain of something.
I’m a fountain of a creek I forgot to thank.”

“Three-Point Shooter,” a tensile, sound-driven poem in the imperative mood, begins: “Your body must remember it, do it in sleep, / do it without thinking,” and continues by conveying the pressure to perform felt by the speaker and the muscle memory he developed by practicing: “It’s the way a ball comes off the fingertips. / Thousands of times, hundreds of mornings up early /

before school to shoot in the gym . . . ” This poem, also emblematic of poetic consciousness, inscribes the self-forgetting required of mastery in a wonderfully visceral way, ending with an onomatopoeia-inspired enactment of the scene of shooting hoops, alone, in the darkness:

“ . . . the next shot, square, pop, shoot,
follow through the dark Ohio night
lit by lights, lit by owls, lit by loneliness,
lit by nothing, lights out.”

Also a story writer, novelist, and archivist, Navicky is alive to the contradictions between what is and what could be, or could have been; his narrative imagination, borrowing from Borges, sees the infinity and infinite potential within everyday people, situations, objects, and relationships. These poems, a bildungsroman in verse, ground us in the material world, while awakening us to the magnetic connections between words, and in so doing, he evinces his gifts as both storyteller and bard, of unimagined places, yes, but also our memories of youth and young, tender, selves: a nested story within a story revealed as ripe to be mined, to be seen otherwise, felt, and believed.

Jefferson Navicky was born in Chicago and grew up in Southeastern Ohio. He earned his M.F.A. from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics at Naropa University. He is the author of four books, most recently Head of Island Beautification for the Rural Outlands (2023). Antique Densities: Modern Parables & Other Experiments in Short Prose (2021)won the 2022 Maine Literary Award for Poetry. Jefferson’s work has received several acknowledgments and awards, including an American Rescue Plan/Maine Project Grant, a Maine Arts Commission grant, and three Maine Literary Awards. His plays have been produced throughout New England. Jefferson is proud to be a member of Maine’s literary arts community and is active in several volunteer boards, committees, and community projects. He is the archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection.