Jessica Schneider: My Wife’s More Than A Welsher!
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/1/01
Jess’s poems


  This is the diciest essay I’ve yet undertaken. I mean, how does 1 objectively praise 1’s wife? If I do not do enough of such, marital comity is at stake. If I do too much, snippy snipers will have a field day. I recall a recent rebuke from a thick-skulled fellow who chided me for not realizing W.B Yeats was ‘far above us all’. He felt that no living poet could approach the immortals. On the other hand Jessica, my wife, detests being referred to as my wife. So, in the spirit of compromise I will refer to Jess as my wife, even as I compare her poetry & declare it superior to another of the 20th Century Immortals- this time being Dylan Thomas.
  As of this writing, Jess is a mere 25 years old. You can view some of her best poetry on her own web page. For brevity’s sake I will deal only with the posted work, & then use 1 of those poems in toto to compare to Dylan Thomas’s similar work. The 1st poem of Jess’s (alphabetically) is And God only lets me live to sang about it. It’s a 32 line poem in loose syllabic couplets. This is probably Jess’s most un-Jess-like poem to date. Usually she dabbles in dense wordplay- but here she actually speaks well in the character of a reminiscing Ella Fitzgerald. Written after watching an American Masters PBS documentary, the poem really captures the exuberance & indefatigability of Ella. The ‘black’ dialect is not to Jim Crow, & song snippets & quotes from others form a seductively simple antiphon. The metaphor of this famous black woman on a bus that never seems to stop also acts as a powerful metaphor for the plight of pre-Civil Rights Black America. That this poem is a powerful political statement without delving into preachy polemic is all the more remarkable considering Jess’s age when she wrote it a year or so ago. The music of the poem is revealed even in the 1st couplet’s alliteration & assonance: ‘The twitch of BarB-Q hitchin’ the wind must’a pulled us/into summertime, twenty-some miles southbound to Memphis.’ This is a great poem. The fact that it’s in near total opposition to most of Jess’s work only heightens its power, & underscores the effect exploring poetic possibilities opens.
  The next poem is another great poem- this time a sestina called From the Box of the Zoo Fox. Sestinas are notoriously easy to write, but difficult to write well. The forced word choices call for subject matter that naturally induces repetition: mathematics, sleep/dream, oceans, etc. In this great sestina [& in truth if there are a dozen published sestinas in the English language that can be called great I would be surprised] we are confronted by a title that gives us a boxed (caged?) fox in a zoo. Here we get the dream- but it is the dream of the fox; or not? Is it the dream imagery of the speaker dreaming of the fox dreaming? Wonderful & connotive images pop in & out of recognition- in mimicry of dream reality. Repetition is rife- & not just in the endline words: dream/dream, pup/pups, sea/sees, worlds/world, & wild/wild. Yet the endlines allow for even more play: this allows for the inexactness of the dream state to be invoked- as well does the break from form in the final tercet. The 6 endword choices: 1) seems/seams/sees/seal/seemed,  2) being/non-being,  3) wild/while,  4) whether/weather/weathered/whither,  5)gone/gonzo, & 6) wave/waives/unwaived. By the end of the poem we have made quite a journey into & around concepts of selfness, only to be disconcertingly assured it may all not matter anyway. This poem invokes the best of Elizabeth Bishop’s ingénue persona, as well as the deft precision of Marianne Moore. It is also the equal of their greatest poems- & is so from the 1st 2 lines through the last. An even more intriguing contrast can be made to Rilke’s The Panther. The difference being this poem is an opening up, whereas Rilke’s masterpiece is a honing down.
  The next 2 poems are outstanding sonnets from Jess’s series on the women in male artists’ lives. Gala and the Cliff & In time, Andree Rexroth are both excellent poems. The former recounts an episode from early in Salvador Dali’s marriage- the eternal artistic conflict is given an interesting twist in questioning which is the realer: the real, or the real related via art? Especially with time. The latter is a devastatingly effective love poem on the Rexroths. Possible clichéd word choices & situations are freshened almost effortlessly: the sun shifts into summer photons, a lover’s walk by a stream recalls hissing, its song fades into the anonymous air of days, etc. Jess uses what might be called standard Rexrothian imagery & scientific invocation to evoke not only the wistfulness of that doomed union, but also to give the whole poem an apparitional feel- from word to emotion. It’s a beautiful, yet disturbingly haunting & cyclic poem. Yet it is almost anti-Romantic. This is the poem’s best achievement. The former sonnet has strong arguments that can be made for its greatness; the latter has no real arguments AGAINST its greatness.
  Orchids and everything since is a poem that successfully mixes 2 staples of workshop poetry- photographs & flowers. Read how this poem mixes the 2, plays each off the other, yet succeeds in leaving you delighted in its end- even as many standard markers of the 2 aforementioned poetic archetypes appear, only to be subverted. The animals lay time is an intriguing poem whose very title’s duplicity enhances its meaning. Are we referring to merely the mundane coral-building process? Are we referring to sea creatures’ unspecific existences? The poem rewards with each successive reread. Una, Instead is another sonnet on the female in an artist’s life. Again, Jess subverts the expected. Here she does it with the almost child-like end contrasting against the more familiar Jeffersian imagery, as well the subtitle of the poem. The contrast of the inner & outer realms also works wonderfully in this great sonnet. The final poem I will briefly limn is another sonnet- this 1 a looser free verse sonnet on another poetic staple- a famous artist/artwork. In this case Claude Monet’s Wild Poppies is essayed. Yet the staccato rhythm & imagery work against the very placidity of Monet’s technique & imagery. This devilishly clever & deft poem ends with a total ‘realization’ [in the truest sense] of the art in the mind of the speaker. In all these poems Jess shows a range & exuberance far beyond her years. This also informs the skill within the interior structure of the poems. Any & all of these poems can be argued strongly as great- some moreso than others. Nonetheless, few 25 year olds can even come close.
  Now I turn to the Jess-Dylan Thomas comparison. I do this because the 2 poems discussed are the same form- a villanelle. Also, because it is exceedingly rare to see a near total unknown’s poetry compared favorably to that of an icon, but even rarer to see a woman’s poetic work compared to that of a man’s. Think of it- like poems are often compared- be they formal, or from the same ‘-ism’, or poets from the same sex: ‘she’s the next Plath/Moore/Akhmatova’ or ‘he reminds of Yeats/Berryman/Pasternak’, but rarely do we get the cross-mixture.
  What is a villanelle? The word is from the Italian villanella, from villano, meaning "peasant". The term was used by the French to designate short poems of popular characters by poets in the late 16th century, mostly unrestricted by form. Jean Passerat wrote some villanelles which set the pattern for later poets & imposed a rigorous & monotonous form: 7-syllable lines using 2 rhymes, in 5 tercets and a quatrain with a # of exact repeated lines. The villanelle morphed by the 19th century. In England, it was practiced by W.E. Henley, Austin Dobson, Andrew Lang, and Edmund Gosse (among other no-longer-notable notables!). Like the longer sestina (similarly forced into repetitiveness) villanelles are often written, but rarely written well. Too often repetitive villanelles are written of mothers braiding daughters’ hair, or the kneading of dough, etc. But the villanelle’s shorter form allows for even less character development. Thus, it is probably an even more difficult form to pull off than the sestina. The right subject matter & approach is all the more important. Often poets try to get around the tight stricture of rime & repetition by allowing for laxer standards in the exactly repeated lines. Of the few villanelles I’ve done I think only 1 is a ‘strict’ villanelle.  I now want to quote what is probably the most famous villanelle in English, Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, show that while a good poem, it is vastly overrated, its faults owing to the very tightness of the form’s strictures. I will then quote Jess’s villanelle Moth Lost in a Laboratory, & show how it avoids the very pitfalls that sabotage Thomas’s poem, & allow her poem to succeed well beyond his. 1st is Thomas:


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Copyright © by Dylan Thomas

  Since 8 of the 19 lines (42%) of a strict villanelle are ‘locked in’, this really limits a poet’s choices; not to mention the limit of end rimes which is daunting enough to any poet. The 1st error Thomas makes is to let the 1st line act as a de facto title. He often did this, but in such a tight form it’s a wasted opportunity to ‘freely’ insert ideas or imagery into a poem without worry of the tight strictures- 1 of the very reasons a title can be a handy & effective tool in poetry. That it is not bespeaks the lack of originality in the bulk of most verse- contemporary or classical. Quickly clichés pile up: old age’s burning & lunacy, then the dying of the light, itself. The idea of denying death is very familiar & these words- while musically sound, are not original in the least. The notion of savants’ knowledge of the unknown (line 4), of the frailty of life (stanza 3), the dying being ‘blinded by the light’ (stanza 5), are all tired- although their phrasing is melodic. That these men at different states all do the same thing, as well the speaker’s father, seems almost to mimic the pointless rituals of death (the poem’s strongest point!)- yet the repetition of these notions toward death & their utterance really drain the power of the pointlessness detailed, & the wonderful music. This is a good, solid poem- but a great poem, no way. Even were 1 to retain the strictness of the form, a little variance in the details & the narrative could have achieved the same positive results, & rid itself of the downsides. In essence, the stricture is the fatal flaw in this poem. The very repetitive ritualizations detailed, are too much for this repetitive form- at least in this incarnation- & very TRITE! Yet alibiers abound: those who think this poem great conveniently overlook its many flaws & focus only on its strengths: beauty of sound, supposed ‘meter’, clarity, & profundity. Yet, the few people who point to flaws do so gingerly & by invoking the personal to explain the weaknesses: the poem’s being about Thomas’s father as he approached blindness and death. The relevant part being Thomas's respect for his father's independence of mind & spirit, lost to illness. In the face of this the poet’s task of mastering this ‘tragedy’ in villanelle is accorded sublime respect. The flaws are swept under this rug. That this poem succeeds is a bow to Thomas’s technical felicity, not his ideation. Now I will explore Jess’s outstanding & GREAT villanelle Moth Lost in a Laboratory- a poem that is technically brilliant, as well as using its ideation to maximum benefit.

Moth Lost in a Laboratory

A beauty circumvents that which beguiles.
Swarmed, such creature’s willful sounded plight
frees into moth, substance of the spiral.

Do the eyes not soften upon the tile,
among the whimsical gesture-sifted flight?
A beauty circumvents that which beguiles.

Aside a wall, tilted wings, brazen, while
nearing investigation: a severed sight
frees into moth, substance of the spiral.

Toward the cosmos, artificial light files
between air’s shifting flee into flight.
A beauty circumvents that which beguiles.

In landing, where the dishroom is, docile,
it commands, dashing spans of whispered height,
frees into moth, substance of the spiral.

Textured wings, swift in horizontal style,
cross tethered interiors of light.
A beauty circumvents that which beguiles,
frees into moth, substance of the spiral.

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider

  The 1st difference vis-à-vis Thomas’s poem is Jess’s poem’s title. It puts us in a precise place & predicament. The very nature of the spoken of protagonist oddly lends the villanelle power. Think of a moth’s very flickering notion. It repeats over & again, yet is restricted- in this poem by its location. Unlike Thomas Jess’s imagery & repetons are not familiar- much less clichéd- think of this: in a poem about a moth the only 2 mentions of light are just tangential, at best to the moth. That’s quite a feat! Both repetons are fresh & intriguing: beauty’s kibosh of interest, & the moth’s being possibly a verb in some instances, yet nonetheless either verb or noun merely being subordinate to the motion. Wonderful in a poem on a moth. The flickering motion is gesture-sifted, the moth possibly becomes air itself, & is a shifting flee into flight. The alliteration & assonance in this poem is supreme- its music equals or surpasses Thomas’s, yet this poem has none of the hackneyed demerits. The whole poem states a very Modern posit: matter is energy. Yet, as concise as e=mc2 is, it is not as beautiful as this poem. If there’s a published strict villanelle as good as this I would be delighted to read it. I doubt, however, that it will match the originality of this poem- both in conception & execution.
  Let me end by stating that I am proud to call Jess MY WIFE! Not only for, obviously, personal & private reasons, but also for her strength & growth as an artist. At her age I’d not even written a single poem that 1 could call great. I was, indeed, a late bloomer. Jess has about a dozen poems, as of this writing, that the qualifier GREAT could easily be applied to. Thomas has perhaps ½ to equal that many great poems- yet, not nearly the diversity of the poems discussed- much less those I’ve not discussed. Thomas was a fairly predictable poet- while technically marvelous, at times, he lacked breadth of vision & invention. But it is Jess’s vision, invention & daring that bodes the best for her poetry & its sustained excellence in the future. 1 of the reasons I chose to compare Jess’s poem with a male counterpart is that, unlike virtually all other published female poets, Jess is not bound by her sex- there are poems in which nothing in the poem’s structure gives away the poet’s sex. Yet she also has shown deftness in writing from the feminine- especially others’ POVs. I am also proud to state that these manifestations of transcendence are in good part due to my own, as well my invention & daring serving as a template for her to emulate. Nonetheless, Jess’s talent existed well before we met; our union merely hastened her leap into the scary area that few dare. Not bad, for MY WIFE!


Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share