As readers of Jean Janzen’s poetry have come to expect, the poems in her newest volume, Tasting the Dust, are provocative and approachable both for readers trained in the study of literature and for those new to poetry. Many of the themes in Tasting the Dust carry on emphases from her earlier volume, Snake in the Parsonage, as Janzen examines her history, family, and place. And even a heightened focus in her new volume on poems inspired by paintings is not entirely unanticipated, since she includes a few of these art poems in Snake in the Parsonage.
This collection is aptly named Tasting the Dust, for Janzen guides us deeply into the places of her life, a space filled with a growing-up family, an aging mother, a profound sense of the past, a larger world of visual artists, and, of course, a keen engagement with the land around her adopted home of Fresno, California. As suggested by this glimpse of her themes, Janzen’s poems are firmly grounded in the everyday images--a boy kindling a fire, a stash of children’s school papers--yet often also transcend this physicality to give a glimpse of eternity. But these suggestions of the eternal are no glib attachment to Janzen’s poems, for they grow out of an engagement with real pain, from the martyrdom of the Anabaptist past to the grief of seeing a mother pass from this life.
The centrality of the geographical place, evident in many poems, can well be seen in the final, title poem,
Tasting the Dust as well as its companion near the beginning of the volume,
Claiming the Dust. In
Tasting the Dust Janzen describes her husband’s love of gardening, this
physician / curing himself with soil--a soil that, with its origins in the lava rising from deep in the earth, offers a taste of the depths through the fruits of the garden (66). The ground in
Claiming the Dust appears less fertile, with Janzen describing the dry California
ancient lakebed and quoting a neighbor who sighs that
It takes dynamite to plant / an orange tree (4). Janzen moves, though, from her description of the land to suggest something of the life beyond:
This hard earth not our final holding
place after all, but the air
into which we sail,
breath by dusty breath,
toward a distant shore. (5)
This easy moving from the temporal to the transcendent is among the greatest strengths of Janzen’s poems.
The changing spaces occupied by family are an important theme in this collection. Striking for any parent who has admired the school papers of their children, but also despaired of knowing how many of these treasures to save, is Janzen’s poem
Markings. Remembering the reams of papers tucked away, Janzen writes,
Oh, I know it will all be buried, / pressed into rock at last. And yet, / somehow those markings loosen out of time. What the children have written becomes forever saved and for Janzen is connected with
the place we enter after death. / That book of leaves. / And on the front, our names (25). This linkage between family and eternity is at times one fraught with pain, as Janzen reveals in a series of three poems near the end of the volume. The struggle of seeing her mother die is evident in these poems, with Janzen lamenting,
I want her hot again (64). Yet she affirms at the end of her
Elegy in the Shenandoah Valley that she has found
. . . what lay hidden and waiting
in you. All those years a gathering
of streams for such a place
as this, where you hold me
and let me go.
Where I will find you again. (65)
The third of the four sections of Tasting the Dust most explicitly engages the lives of Christ and his followers. In a series of five poems, titled
The Frescoes, Fra Angelico, Janzen examines scenes from the life of Jesus through her close examination of these frescoes. These poems invite the reader to re-experience these familiar stories as Janzen describes the
golden needles on which the baby is laid in the manger (49) or the manner in which the Sermon on the Mount has continued its process of
sinking in all these many years (51). Janzen further explores the implications of following Christ as she presents the lives of saints and martyrs, often through her encounter with visual art. Anyone who has faced the images from the Mirror of the Martyrs exhibit will resonate with Janzen’s struggle to reconcile the ordinariness of sharing a familial meal with the images of torture she has seen. Wrestling with how she might have responded, she concludes her poem
After the Martyrs Exhibit with the line,
I never said I could do it (41).
Although this section contains the heaviest concentration of poems inspired by visual art, that linkage of art forms is evident throughout the volume. In fact, Janzen begins each section, each of her
windows, with a poem based on a Vermeer painting. These poems exhibit Janzen’s admirable eye for detail and her ability to make an image live. Yet in my view, Janzen’s most compelling texts remain her poems that more explicitly investigate her relationship to the places in her life.
In several poems, Janzen acknowledges that she cannot fully control the medium of her communication, the words of her poems.
Our stories are too big / for our bodies, she writes (18).
These vowels I fasten down / want to fly, . . . and you and I can only gaze / at what flashes by (22). Yet in the midst of this humility, understanding that we can never fully grasp language, that words can never fully communicate what we want to say, Janzen nevertheless shows herself wonderfully capable of capturing a moment for us and holding it up for our contemplation. Reading her poems is a delight because she so ably helps us see what is around us through the lens of what is ultimately important, to look closely at the valley and the mountain--but also to wrestle with
Grace and necessity, the endless paradox (14).
L. Lamar Nisly