My Kansas author for December, 2006, is John Jenkinson. I have only met John twice--in March and again in November--at poetry readings. But he is our newest Woodley Press author, and the reading in March was at Washburn, where he was reading from his new book of poetry, Rebekah Orders Lasagna. I had not been involved in the publication of that book at all--Eleanor Bell was the editor for the Woodley Press--and had neither heard nor seen any of John's poetry before. My first impression was that the title was strange. But that title poem was one of those John read, and I was very impressed by his reading. It convinced me that the Woodley Press was still choosing the best in Kansas, and, when I met him again, last month, in Emporia, he was promoting, not his own poetry, but that of one of the readers there, Daniel Spees, whose chapbook, Michelangelo's Snowman, John Jenkinson's own Oil Hill Press had recently published. That press, and John Jenkinson, are based in Wichita--which, still in Kansas, is almost another world for me. I decided that I should be reaching out to that world, however, particularly since I have been so impressed by Rebekah Orders Lasagna, and decided to do this page on my website. It is, after all, a Woodley Press book.
John Jenkinson in Ciudad Oaxaca
As the biographical paragraph at the end of the book tells us, John Jenkinson came late to the contemporary academic world of poetry, but got an MFA from Wichita State University, a PhD from the University of North Texas, and a Milton Center post-doctoral Fellowship in Poetry at Newman University.
Rebekah Orders Lasagna
One of the things that most impressed me at that reading in March, was this cover, which is one of two. The image of Rebekah is reflected in the plate, which you are not likely to see in the original until it is pointed out, but then can see clearly. You will no doubt just have to imagine it in this reproduction (turn it, or yourself, upside down to imagine the face of the woman sitting at that place reflected in the plate, the picture taken by the same brother who later spoils her appetite telling the story of the Florentine plague). I liked that, as a touch of the author's quixotic imagination, and it applies to much in his work, as you finally come to see that the title applies, not only to that poem, but to the whole dish put before you, in its unusual combinations.
John Jenkinson with Friend
Referring you to Bruce Bond's Preface for a good general characterization of John Jenkinson's poetry, I offer the title poem, "Rebekah Orders Lasagna," as an example, for several reasons:
It is the longest poem in the collection. I heard it read by the author. Given my education, I have a particular interest in form, and it is a stanzaic poem--17 stanzas, 14 lines each (I'll say no more about form--nor talk about how the enjambement works--but invite you to examine the poem in those terms). The only other poems in the book where every line opens with a capital letter (as most of my poems do, and as they do in this poem), without regard to sentence punctuation, are three 14-line poems based on Biblical passages (that also play with rhyme)--and "A Dim Estate," which is 20 lines (Then why that poem? A clue--it's also in ballad meter). It is narrative, and I think I can follow the story--even the sentences all make sense to me, as sentences--so I understand this poem better than many. Since I do not know John well, I can read the poem as completely autobiographical, which makes it more interesting. There is a special cast of characters around the table, "three generations stacked in our own cheesy bonds." It is a family with their many relationships of affection and annoyance, neatly introduced in a line here and there. It observes the unities of time and place. The story almost all takes place in a home (I like to think in Wichita), mostly at the dinner table, where the meal is Cathy's lasagna, ordered by Rebekah, who is "Home for the summer," before being lured to Southern California by the absent brother, Neil, who is in Santa Barbara, "surfing to a PhD/ In Sociology." The exception is the last two stanzas, where they visit another family member not there for lasagna, Cathy's father, who gave her the recipe. He wouldn't know it now, any more than he does them, for he is an old man with Alzheimers. He is brought home the next year, in the last stanza, to a bed that takes the place of the dining room table, around which the family gathers, "Each of us in our accustomed place/ At the vanished table, bereft of wine or bread (and, I assume, bereft of Rebekah, who "starlet-eyed" must be in Hollywood--or auditioning at The Pasadena Playhouse).
What Rebekah orders stands as a metaphor for the contents of the book, as Bruce Bond suggests, and the lasagna principle is applied to everything in the poem, from the family, to the "strata" in which the remains of mollusks and dinosaurs are found, to the "layers of air," the "scientific baklava," Sputnik studies, to the "Taco Bell Burrito: the seven-layer" that the no doubt illegal-immigrant gravediggers "Fresh from Guanajuato" see as "Gringo-food." But most strongly it is introduced in the description of the plague in Florence (that provoked The Decameron) in Marchione di Coppo Stefani's Cronaca fiorentina (which reminded me of the way the plague in Kyoto is described in Kamo no Chômei's Hôjôki a century or two earlier) where, in the passage quoted in the epigraph, the word itself is used as a simile for the way the dead are buried. Nick, telling that story (which impresses the narrator with how much attention he is paying to what he is studying at school (though he still must stop talking about it at the table) causes Rebekah to complain that she has lost her appetite for lasagna (Alex's "Italian afterbirth," earlier, might have done it for me). We had four boys at the table, and I know it's hard to control their meal-time conversation--it can get as bad as the news from Iraq on the television as we are eating dinner now. "Boys!" That leaves you to decide what the poem is doing thematically with this lasagna principle--which I am willing to do.
There are always problems in translation, but I was surprised that they had lasagna in Florence in 1348. Did they have pizza, too? When Boccaccio's storytellers were taking a break, did they have one or the other for their dinner? I used to say that the sonnet was the little package that was used to send the Rennaissance from Italy across France to be domesticated in England, between Petrarch's time and Shakespeare's (perhaps more like a plague as about 300,000 were written on the way). Could Shakespeare then have sent out for pizza, or ordered lasagna, while he was working on the first 14 lines of Romeo and Juliet, or the first 14 lines the lovers exchange when they meet, before their first kiss. But now I am writing my own poem. I had better give you John Jenkinson's (for December).
Rebekah Orders Lasagna
At every church, or at most of them, they dug deep trenches, down to the waterline, wide and deep, depending on how large the parish was. And those who were responsible for the dead carried them on their backs in the night in which they died and threw them into the ditch, or else they paid a high price to those who would do it for them. The next morning, if there were many [bodies] in the trench, they covered them over with dirt. And then more bodies were put on top of them, with a little more dirt over those; they put layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese in a lasagna.
--Marchione di Coppo Stefani
Our starlet-eyed Rebekah, blonde, just
Home for the summer and faintly menacing,
Will not have it any other way:
Her mother (sprung from a long Norwegian line)
Must set aside the wash and make her famous
Lasagna, spinach salad and homemade bread.
So Cathy spreads the noodles in their greased
Glass pan, pats them with her fingertips
And curls their edges up. Now it's time
To spread the meat, a spicy Calabrese
Sausage, braised in olive oil, leeks,
Oregano, black pepper, a garlic smear.
Redden the pan, the drift of cinnamon
I sneak into the mix, a pinch of salt.
"Italian afterbirth!"our youngest, Alex,
Returning from rehearsing Romeo
And Juliet, exults. As Gregory,
He's taken to Italian ways: the foods,
The feuds, the wise-guy cracking smart. Finished
With the final layer, Cathy sprinkles
Ricotta, lets a last drizzle of sauce
Dress the Pyrex sarcophagus she slides,
With a little prayer to her thrift-store wind-up timer,
Into the oven. And then my mother, bearing
A rhubarb pie like a swaddled babe in the crotch
Of her elbow, pokes her head through the broken backdoor
Screen, then sniffs with a gourmand's knowing air
And tells us that she's just this week discovered
A little restaurant that serves "The very
Best lasagna that I've ever tasted."
She doesn't catch her veiled insult, but does
Say Cathy's kitchen smells "sooo good. Just like
My mother's, on Sundays after services"--
Cathy, bent before the stove, twists and shoots
Me a dagger from over her shoulder, like a circus knife-
Trick artist. She loves my mom, but worries what
She'll say. I wonder where this sin will fall
In the grand scheme of their misunderstandings.
"It's my father's recipe," Cat snips,
"With any luck it will suffice for us."
Mother tries to patch things ups. "I only
Meant," she frowns, "the best café lasagna."
So Mom, likeWhitman, contradicts herself,
And I am left to ponder the marsalla
Odors wafting through my granny's kitchen.
You see, I don't recall a bit of this,
Just Granny's Midwest meatloaf, pan-fried chicken
And instant mashed potatoes. Did we ever
Eat Italian food? I chalk it up
To someone's wishful thinking, but remember
Granny armed with serving spoons, her splattered
Apron an armour she deployed against
A host of enemies--chopped beets or gravy-stains,
A splash of grease, the milk my brother spilled,
Predictable as Mussolini's trains;
Or Granddad mining his Hebrew dictionary:
He preached the ancient texts each Sunday, twice,
And lathered up the etymologists
Who jammed his small-town Presbyterian church.
Mother brought him home when she was six,
Elected him her daddy. That was that.
Sometimes I think about her other father,
The one who looked like me, who left his wife
And child in 'twenty-nine to Hoover's mercy--
Gramps, the one I met just once, age three
I'd guess, a wompus man in the Missouri woods,
Fresh from a six month bit in Joliet:
Murder Two--he'd pistol-whipped a black man
Over a poker game in East St. Louis,
Split his skull--but all I can recall
Is Grandpa handing me a stale Moon Pie.
So we all scoot our wobbly flesh-toned chairs
Up to our table, three generations stacked
In our own cheesy bonds. Across town,
At the Gardens of Memory, a pair of workers
Fresh from Guanajuato rest against
Their shovels, duck the gaze a huge Carrera-
Marble Jesus fans, disconsolate,
Across the measured sameness of the tombs.
They dig the holes here deeper, for double-decker
Vaults, in which the matrimonial dead
Lie one above the other, as in bunks,
Not side by side like lovers in one bed.
Our youngest burns his fingers on the grate
That holds the bread, but keeps himself composed
And juggles buttered loaves into the basket
"Like God deals battered lives into the casket."
In eighth grade World History, the Plague
Is all the rage: Black Death: a tattooed drum
And guitar band who digitally market
Their tattered denim fashions, studded belts
And low-end nose-rings turning dollar-green.
They slump around and pose as though their pallid
Ennui could be terminal. Alex
Thinks he'll start a next-wave band. Red Flea.
He tells us "Ring Around the Rosy" stems
From plague-lore, plans to play it loud, with drums.
He also wants to know where Sputnik's hiding.
Rebekah's college boyfriend, Sputnik seems
A youth who's doomed, like poems, to loss and desire:
Rebekah goes through men like I use tires.
We'd call him Nick, his given name, but we
Already have a Nick, and anyway,
Sputnik studies at the astronaut
Academy, where moony students read,
And knows the names of all the layers of air--
The atmo-, strato-, tropo-, hoodoo-spheres
Of scientific baklava we breathe:
A science like the phylo dough our names
Encode, enveloping the nuts and honey
Of the families we're gravely born
Into, perhaps amend. Cathy guesses
Sputnik's orbiting the house, his Ford
Another aging Mir with burned-out brakes;
But frankly, we all feel a little nervous.
He comes from Girl Scout Camp, a carrier
Of mononucleosis, the plague of teenage
Girls (a lifeguard, he perches over the lake
And scans bikinied thirteen-year-old babes
With surplus-store binoculars--confused
As that Carrera-marble Christ). Rebekah
Greets these innuendoes with unveiled
Contempt and the worst insult she knows: "Boys!"
"We only want what's best for her," they plead,
But no one's buying that. We bow for grace.
Cathy shifts her role from cook to host,
Starts the bread around while I uncork
A frisky Carmignano, young and ruby-red,
To lubricate our tongues. Of all of us,
Cathy knows the trick to calm Rebekah.
"What is an innuendo?" Cathy asks,
Then laughs, "An Italian enema!"
Our forks poised halfway to our open mouths,
Nick, who studies Medieval History
At the local college, trumps his funny mother,
Announcing that he's digested the Marchione
Di Coppo Stefani's Testimonio,
How the poorest poor tossed plague-racked corpses
Into ditches trenched around each church . . .
As with one common eye we see them, stacked
In our lasagna: the buboed Florentines,
Scarf-wrapped Mamas, aunts engulfed in meat-sauce,
The uncorrupted children newly orphaned
And left to tend their pustulating sores,
Black-egg swellings suppurating groin
And armpit; the lung-racked panderers, the bleeding
Prostitutes who never lay this still
So near the church. The oldest black-ragged crones
Who outlived their descendants, stumbling under
Faggot bundles, bearing fuel from empty
Hearth to empty hearth until, exhausted,
They simply fall and do not rise again.
Witches with their failing medicines--
Yarrow, mandrake, powdered amanita.
Or youthful painters, their fledgling perspective lost
In a Byzantine maze of mystics, gypsies and Jews--
At every door, another unclean host.
Horseflesh fouls the street; the stricken pets,
The lunatics set loose to hemorrhage,
Reminiscent of those fierce condotierri
Boiled to tempest in the feudal teapots--
Mother's seen enough, and raps Nick's head
With her sausaged fork. Rebekah leaps from her chair,
"Mom, make him stop. I can't stomach
A thing now." I'm surprised that Nick has read
So widely out of text--but Cathy will not
Brook my pleasure now. "Stop," I bark.
The sedimentary dead who fell to buttress
Up the church may just as well have died
In different eons--lutists, lovers, liars
They mark their status by their strata, like mollusks,
Or dinosaurs. The first to die, thrown nearest
Hell's warm grates, will spread their soul-fired wings,
Rapturous, and sail on Jesu's breath
Where even Sputnik's rocket cannot follow,
While their neighbors chew a last night's mud.
But high in the Apennines, a Bishop dodges
Death--a clearing in the beechwoods where his
Scared attendants work a tree-rigged fan
In shifts to blow the vapors from His Person.
Lancing down from Heaven, a shaft of sunshine
Anoints the tonsured workers. They wash in holy
Water, drive the frightened peasants down
The hill with halberds: His Holiness bends to your prayers;
You must redeem your families, go hence!
And bear your dead to final victory.
Meanwhile, back at the Gardens of Memory,
Enrique and Reynaldo have forgotten
Their lunches at home and drive for a Taco Bell
Burrito: the seven-layer. Gringo-food, they laugh.
We finish up our food and lave the dishes.
Sputnick rinses, Rebekah gives advice
And chides him teasingly for coming late.
He got the street directions backwards. "You'll
Never find the moon," she remonstrates.
Then takes a cell-phone call from brother Neil,
Who's moved to Santa Barbara, a beach-
Bound scholar surfing to a PhD
In Sociology. He reads no French,
But cites Lacan and Derrida as if
They were the men who peddle Meals-on-Wheels
From door to door across the barrio:
A sociology of doubt and want.
He's called to lure his baby sister west,
Out of the family's close-quartered orbit:
Hollywood! The Pasadena Playhouse!
Reality T.V.! Our little solar
System feels another tug from Beyond.
I tap my heart for those already gone.
After lunch we visit Walden, Cat's dad.
He rests in a Home, where he expresses nothing
We can bring ourselves to understand.
His mind spins like an Osterizer blender,
A whirl of memories a step removed
From any life of his that we remember.
A top-rank culinary innovator,
He was head chef at Guido's Place, but now
He's lost without his prime ingredients:
Us. Or are we really that important?
Each of us a layer of fresh lasagna--
Pasta, cheese, or meat, we play our parts--
But he can never really catch the taste
Until we've all been thoroughly chewed up.
We do not know that one more year will fetch
Walden back home. A broken hip. We'll rent
A bed, hydraulic, to park in the dining room
For easy access--lay him where the table
Used to stand. We'll touch him, squeeze him water
From a sponge; he won't speak, but rattle
Deep down in his lungs. Cathy's song,
A tear-brimmed "Old Dan Tucker," will earn a smile,
But morphine rubs us out, a family
Who could be anyone--his grandparents,
Perhaps, or boyhood baseball players. We'll catch
In a familiar pose around the bed,
Each of us in our accustomed place
At the vanished table, bereft of wine or bread.
I encourage you to look at Watching 'The Invisible Man' another 14-line poem, that might be said to generate three stanzas, and which reminds me of what the Topeka poet Ronald Johnson did to Paradise Lost in searching for the poem within a poem, in Radi os.
If you'd like to contact the author about this poem, or the book, John Jenkinson's e-mail is:
You could order a copy through him, or, to order from the Woodley Press directly, write or call:
Paul Fecteau email@example.com (785) 670-1445
Topeka, KS 66621