Winter 2006-7

ESSAYS - David B Axelrod


As is often true, America exports its culture far and wide. With Jesse Glass, we have sent a fine poet abroad-to live in Chiba, Japan (east of Tokyo by about an hour), where he teaches Literature and History at Meikai (Bright Sea) University. There he lives with his wife, Maya, son Yoichi and daughter Tennessee and goes on creating some of America’s finest experimental poetry.


His newly published Selected Poems begins with a forty-page epic entitled “The Passion of Phineas Gage  & Selected Poems" (West House Books & ahaDADA Books, 2006).


It derives from extensive research Glass has done on the actual case of Mr. Gage (1823 to 1861), who lived the final third of his thirty-seven year life with the after effects of having a forty-inch steel tamping rod blasted through his face and skull.

All of the poems in Gage’s voice are written with desperate fragmentation denoted by commas inserted after every single word:

                The, bolt, that, stove, my, left,
                cheek, &, breached, the, top, of, my, skull,
                was, a, Watcher’s, tower, forged ...

The long poem is interspersed with carefully selected facts, rendered into poetry or poetic prose.

We see Phineas when he is hit; when his wife throws him out; when he’s reduced to:

                The scarred cheek, stitched socket
                jaw knocked out of plum ...
                The eyes (see ‘em) monkey-like.

Phineas, it seems, “turned his back on New England forever” and headed to Chile, lucid at times and declaring “A man with half a brain could live forever!”

But he doesn’t and after burial, is later disinterred, whereupon his head is cut off and sent to a medical college together with the bar that was driven through his skull. So what can we make of this retelling, this experiment in poetry?

If I read a news story, see a movie, even just hear a rumor, often I’m moved to want more. Less often I feel compelled to seek out the full story. It’s not that Glass’s own rendition is lacking. Rather, like life itself, or Phineas who lived fully one third of his own life with “half a brain,” we are left wanting more. That is likely a great gift when one considers the weight of ennui which too often renders us feelingless.

Glass uses all his skills as a poet to make the reader feel alive and engaged in the character he has captured for us in a mammoth poem. His is not the experimentation of one who refuses to learn a craft-as may be said of those painters who are not classically trained and thus cannot render a realistic portrait or landscape. Rather he is clearly the master of poetry in the American grain which he demonstrates in selected poems such as “There” which contains the essentials of our contemporary poetic tradition.

He describes a scene, first person, experiential, richly imagistic. There is a “collapsing shed” and:

                in one corner a rusted clock rammed with farm grit, chicken feathers
                and the plow tipped on its side like an iron shoe
                alive with a dance of spiders ...

It’s not that we need proof of Glass’s mastery of the craft but there aren’t many poems being written these days that create a more exquisite sense of “thereness.” Of course, as is sometimes true for “language poets” and surrealists, some of Glass’s poems are a test of a kind-disassociative, almost encoded, as with poems in the book which are literally, exact reproductions of Glass’s drawings or handwritten words: Other poems nearing the end of the book, are typographically experimental-beyond what is now more common since e e cummings.

The second of two “Puppet Psalms” and “In the Realm of the Mother, A” use typographical devices to shout, stutter, cry. “E Song” consists of fifteen words floating in the space of five pages. Glass is quite wonderful and brave in his desire to play with language. When I read “Alchemical Lion,” who am I to even say what it means? I got a “C” when I wrote a paper on William Blake’s “Tyger,” in my Introduction to Literature class, because I thought it was about a tiger.

Glass gives us the “lion whose brain is an elastic sea,” declaring “the light of your combustion fills the desert.” And I’m charmed. The language is vital, vivid, and the meaning overall is secondary to this fine art. Indeed, Glass gives us his poetics, if inadvertently, in the opening lines of “Holderlin’s Cabinet”:

                 Dear Friends
                it is not enough to develop
                a vocabulary sufficient to express
                light in a dark mirror.

Some poets write confessionals of sons who sought a father’s atonement. Glass creates a “Lexical Obelisk” from a “cowardly son too fond/ of ease who could not hammer/ who could not run the machines.”

As a poet whose father was an auto mechanic, I can relate to that. My own favorite-for what is a review if not a tour de force of taste masquerading as critical analysis-is “New Years Day.” “Blinds up, the whole story wobbles by” piecing together moments that are as real as their addresses-“807 E. Juneau, City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County”-and as hard to handle as “hang-overs from too much Jack Daniels the night before.”

Glass can fly you to wonderful places. He even states, in the poem “The Altered Voice,” that “American poetry of note is meant to be language.” Glass tell us “the life of the poem resides in the middle ground between trope & memory.” If a trope, by definition is “a figure of speech that is descriptive and presents a sensory image in the mind,” so then, do these poems.

If you read Glass’s poems, you will be enriched with images and thereafter the richer for your own expanded imagination.

For more on Jesse Glass go to



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