In Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, poet Jessica Jacobs has engaged with a project that many poets would fear to undertake and some prospective readers might fear would be too straightforward and predictable. This book charts the narrator’s love for her wife-to-be—the long prelude and eventual marriage. In poem after accomplished poem, we are taken from the poet’s childhood, to the evolution of her sexuality, her restless early adulthood, and the introduction to her wife-to-be—whom she basically avoids becoming deeply involved with for six years—their compressed courtship period (in which they make up for lost time) and subsequent elopement, their early marriage—with ecstasy and conflict, and then a test in the form of a serious medical problem. None of this feels linear or predictable, in subject or in form. As an advocate of surprise (and probable sufferer of ADD), I can assure you that at no point does one want to start reading from the back or riffle through in search of something different in order to change things up. We are in the competent hands of a talented and versatile poet.
As in life, there is a dark thread running throughout this book. Jacobs writes of her Florida childhood: “Nights, I ran golf courses whose water traps/shone red with the eyes of alligators and rang/with their falsely innocuous chorus/of chirps.” This darker coloration recurs when she and her partner elope and have to travel to find a state that will recognize their marriage. This disturbing fact is folded into humorous repartee about their plane flight home: “A Boeing cabin/was our marital chamber, with all the standard humiliations/of a plane: snaky whisper from the overhead vent, seatback pocket/sticky as a kangaroo’s pouch . . . /. . . . –recognition of our marriage dependent, /anyway, on which state we were flying over.” In “A Question to Ask Once the Honeymoon Was Over,” she passes a turtle in the middle of the road, while cycling, and on the way back discovers that the “turtle/was just where I left it, but the top of its shell/torn away. The dead turtle,/a raw, red bowl, its blood slashing the twinned yellow lines.” The poem titled “Though we made love in the afternoons” segues to “we fought each night in the smallness of our rented room [.]”
Awareness of these dark and light textures is encoded within the technical mastery of all of the poems. In the sonnet “Thanks, stupid heart,” dense assonance and internal rhyme serve to make the elements in the poem cohere. Here are the title, and opening lines:
Thanks, stupid heart
like for that time I’d banished her
number from every device I owned
only to find the digits scrawled on your
anterior wall. Diastole, you whispered,
relax and fill. But what did you know?
The sonics of these seemingly straightforward lines are remarkable. The long o of “owned,” “only,” “know”; the short i and sh in “banished” and “whispered” (echoed by the short i in “fill” and “jellyfish” in the next stanza, for example, and so on); the ur sound: “her,” “number,” “every,” “your,” “anterior,” “whispered” (and later in the critical “courage” and “accord”). This beautifully made sonnet—with its colloquial phrasing, humor, the conflict throughout in its moaning o’s, its longing echoes of “her”—records an argument with the self. It finds resolution in the last lines: “she was your only//aim, faithful dumb muscle you are, stupid/beautiful heart, you beat only for her.” What I like is how “only” and “her” are reconfigured in the end.
Many of the poems deploy extended metaphor in startling ways. In “What I didn’t say those years you thought I’d forgotten you,” the poet and her beloved are mapped onto a cityscape and the natural world: “I was my own city, my own New York, and you/a succession of rolling blackouts, rolling through me/the way a shadow, each afternoon, unfurled the one gingko tree/on my block: a rilled eclipse, . . . .” As in virtually all of the poems, no matter how surreal the conceit, verisimilitude is lovingly laid into the narrative, never slighted: “Each time you returned, traffic lights failed/and pedestrians fled . . . /. . . but others/stayed. Opened/windows and kicked off sheets, made love/to battery-powered boomboxes on stoops below/where neighbors carried grills from fire escapes to sidewalks/. . . .” The joy of the city and the neighbors who share all the food they can’t bear to waste is conflated with the preternatural visitation and power of the woman-the-speaker-will-marry. In “Between the Kingdoms of the Sick and the Well,” where the couple’s long slog toward getting the result of a biopsy is compared to cycling up the incline of the “world’s steepest bridge,” “old men riding/children’s bicycles, shaggy-haired hipsters on tricked-out fixies,/suits on commute-ready collapsibles” accompany them.
There are several gorgeous erotic poems in the book, including the ending of “Out of the Windfields”:
prayer, I folded myself into the footwell; knelt
between your knees. And
my mouth to you was every water
I’d ever tasted: clean shock
of snowmelt in an alpine pond; tongue cased
in ocean’s wetsuit of salt; green and mineral
of a springfed lake—but most of all,
chlorine’s high bite in the throatback
of every Florida pool in summer, the water
so bath-warm, so body-kindred, that entering
was like sliding into another skin—skin
that entered you back.
Here the grit and the water of landscape open into a kind of melding, the “body-kindred,” that we knew but did not know how to express until we read these lines.
Again landscape and emotion are merged seamlessly in the following passage from
“In a Thicket of Body-Bent Grass,” but for a very different effect:
Yet deer float the twilight field,
ears periscoping the woody browse.
While bucks bed alone
in deadfall and ditches, trusting themselves
to thick cover, females gather
where wind can breathe in
a predator’s scent. Forelegs origamied into a mantis prayer,
They are poised to spring even when sleeping,
survival a balance between stillness and startle.
This natural world—with its “matted and dusky” “abandoned bed” in the grass—where she has sought refuge is movingly evoked, and the poem ends with the poet’s address to her wife: “Forgive me. I’d grown so used to being lonely.”
The two above-quoted poems are seemingly about the diametrically opposed states of erotic fusion and the narrator’s attraction to solitude, even loneliness. They represent a polarity, a paradox, which occurs from the first word of the book to the last. For instance, the prose poem “Postcards, After the Fall,” one of my favorites, comprises a tour of a “postlapsarian” farm where the poet and her wife are visiting with animals like the emu whose “body is a cross between an ostrich, an umbrella, and a disheveled epaulet.” It ends thus: “On farms, you learn to leave gates as you found them. What is penned must stay penned: so many things that must be kept out, kept out. Is marriage any different? Yet we’ve vowed to be not just honest but forthright, to leave every gate open. No wonder this is difficult.”
Forthrightly, the poet engages the “problem” set forth in the book’s proem, which poses the question: “But on this bleared road,/how to move together and still heed the boundaries of self—still have selves at all?” And implicitly the book responds to the epigraph that precedes it from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet: “For one human to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” This ultimate task is what these poems delineate. They acquire incredible gravitas through that undertaking.
Reading this book, and the account, through the poems, of the poet and her wife’s early marriage, I am reminded of a podcast I recently listened to with Dr. Rob Weiss (on sexandrelationshiphealing.com) and Dr. Tian Dayton called “Understanding the Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences.” Dayton says the first few years of her long-lasting and happy marriage were rocky, that becoming a couple was as painful for her and her husband as joyful. In becoming bonded, she explains, as they revisited the wounds of their pasts (and their possible past attachment problems from very early childhood), they found that first they fused, and experienced a loss of self, uncomfortably, and then became new, deeper selves. We are fortunate to be in the hands of this poet, who honestly portrays a similar process. “The First Rule of Rock Tumbling Is Rocks Must Be of Similar Hardness” is a case in point:
So, where others reminisce
of their early honeymoon years, ours were more
rock tumbler, more slurry and coarse grind,
two roughs bashing together until our edges
not smooth exactly but worn
into each other—gear-tight, cog in cog, turning
our shared hours.
Further, like Rilke, Jacobs finds in her loving a higher spiritual calling. What to other writers might be simply conflict is to Jacobs grounds for further, deeper examination. In the deeply spiritual last section of the long poem “In the Days Between Detection and Diagnosis,” she opens thus, “I write of my love for her and never/come close to naming it.” And closes:
bricks of negation and we can babble
a tower tall enough to make
not a prison, not a house, but an instrument
through which Shekinah, the presence
of God, can sound.
I cannot say
what I believe. But I am listening.
In a recent interview with Tom Bosworth in The Adroit Journal, Jacobs says that falling in love helped to push her out of “navel-gazing” to the “larger questions” and that she began studying Midrash, “a collection of rabbinic writings about the Torah,” and then tellingly: “I wouldn’t have reached this place of wondering without the space that love opened inside me [.]” Even the most cynical among us can see and feel that love has indeed opened a space not only for this poet but for us as well. I invite you to go on the journey of this book with this gifted poet and to look forward attentively, as I do, to her work to come.
Dana Roeser’s fourth book, All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts, won the Wilder Prize at Two Sylvias Press and was published in September 2019. She is also the author of The Theme of Tonight’s Party Has Been Changed, recipient of the Juniper Prize, as well as Beautiful Motion and In the Truth Room, both winners of the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. Among her many awards and honors are the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and numerous residencies in the U.S. and abroad. She has read her work widely and taught in the MFA programs in poetry at Purdue, Butler, and Wichita State Universities. Recent poems and translations have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pushcart Prize XLIII, North American Review, Green Mountains Review, Crazyhorse, PI (Poetry International Online), Laurel Review, Indianapolis Review, and Notre Dame Review.