Monday, July 23, 2012

"the lily-light i've been given": introducing poet j.l. jacobs

poet j.l. jacobs
i overlapped with jaclyn (j.l.) jacobs at the university of oklahoma just briefly, just enough to exchange a lunch or two and a poem or two, but her stunning book of poems, the leaves in her shoes, has stayed with me for more than a decade, since we first met.  so let me start by recommending her book to anyone who loves to read poetry.  

carol muske rightly calls jacobs' book "haunting"
you can also find five of her poems here, in ploughshares, her work in american letters, her poem "an error in geography" in octopus,  and "the magnolia hotel" in the maple tree literary supplement.  she has also been generous enough to share some of her newer work here.

when we reconnected about a year ago, i started noticing that she'd been through something life altering.  when she told me how she had embraced her forced monasticism, i thought her tale the perfect narrative about finding looseness in a tight place, and i asked her to tell her inspiring and insight producing story here at GITP.  she was generous enough to say yes to my request, though her keyboarding time is so limited.  

On Spaces

“I’m exiled. You can’t convert me.” Bob Dylan

  Her disembarkment: less
  than theatrical.
  No less exiled.

  Upon returning from Florence with my best friend-girl at the time, I bought an airplane bungalow house built in 1920, with two stories, hardwood floors, claw-footed tub, original everything.  It reminded me of the flat in the PonteVecchio we’d stayed in with its shutter windows on either side of the fireplace…and it was on Julia Avenue.  I like the name of the street; it is a street for a poet.  A one-block street that is a haven of bird life, with large shades of elm and oak. 

  My physical limitations:

  Drive 6 block radius
  Two hours hand use.
   No bending, lifting,
   or twisting. Ever.
   Car rides are very painful.

  I had danced up to not walking. Truth is, I danced up to being paralyzed from the neck down.  Never sick. The one growing up in the family-owned pharmacy who never caught anything.

  It’s funny how the brain arrives at what is most important.  In my case, when it came to the wire, I put writing above saving my life.  I knew I was very sick; I thought I was dying. Add to this story that I was living with undiagnosed Crohn’s Disease for seven months.  Weighed 107 to begin with.  It melted away.  I fell backwards while trying to walk forward.  Began taking the elevator years ago because I fell backwards on the stairs.  Mine was a case of denial, par excellance.  “I must just be getting clumsy, I thought to myself.”  I didn’t go to doctors.  Ate my apple and kept them at away, at bay.  Grew up organically green, apothecary/nutritionist father and faith in the natural ways of healing.  Herbs, spices, and time to make haste, and time to be still.  Harmony, balance as the key. 

  Slowly losing the use of my right hand, and arm.  How many glasses broken; whole sets of crystal gone.  Difficult to make a meal without breaking a dish.  Wondered how long she could keep on like this.  The English Department had given her all the aural assessment classes they could, at the time all creative writing classes from 2006 to 2008.  The use of the right hand was becoming impossible and the pain unbearable.  Sleep was coveted, and elusive. The software for typing while you speak could not consistently recognize her accent.

  What mattered most, selfish soul that I am, was finishing a poetry manuscript about my dying experience…I mean, if that’s what you are up against, might as well record it…or if you are a war-time correspondent, you report while trying to save your hide. I was also working furiously to finish a novel…had 103 temperatures for three weeks at a time…when I looked down it was if looking down from a great height, everything was spinning.

  I was suffering from severe spinal cord compression at the cervical level (which controls everything from the neck down) and had not a clue.  Didn’t plan on seeing a doctor to find out.  But I was planning my wake.
On Holding On

Had learned to hold onto
whatever was most sturdy
in her own bathroom.  

Now why would it be any different in a stranger’s bathroom?

Got any better balance there sister?

Hoped the towel bar held out
as the porcelain sink was too

How many backward falls?  How many glasses dropped?  Head hit
the pointed corner of the bath cabinet.


 It must not have been my time because my psychologist (read talk-therapist, yes, I admit it to the world)…he made the appointment for an MRI with a neurologist he knew. 

  What they found was collapse as in a crumbling building.  The spinal cord required emergency surgery; donor bone, metal plates, screws and fusion.  I would not have it.  No. Not me. I did not believe in surgery.

On Speaking to Neurosurgeons: My Father’s Advice

“Don’t put on any airs..”

Cause they got
some good doctors
really make mess outta you.

Don’t put on your poet hat
in that Medical Establishment.

Don’t do Blanche Dubois either.
Or God forbid that Steel Magnolia accent.

Remember      here
We are the auslanders, dear.

On Bedtime Prayers

for my nephew Ryan Kade

And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul should wake
in you
that gift of keys and chords and colors
felt by sound and round.

Yeah baby some notes don’t have any color.
You play that harmonica anyway.  Go ahead
and make those songs up as you go. 

Some letters of the alphabet don’t have much color either.  It’s okay.

Dominant colors just take over.  Just let go.  Feel it in the wind, baby.

I’ll be in the wind and dust as you get off the bus, baby.


On Plath

Anna never thought she’d write her own
cadre of Ariel Poems        before
humbling herself to the blade.

Razor sharp scalpel         cut
her pretty white skin.      Peel it back.

“Concentrate on healing. Magnolia-up now.”

“I said my convalescence bed, didn’t I?”

   When I got over, what my Grandmother would call my “mad spell,” I started thanking G-d I had lived as long as I had, and got ready for the surgery that would set me free. 

  It is true that I can “only” drive 6 blocks or maybe 10 if I’m feeling really good…my spine is stenotic all the way down and the residual damage from my neck will remain…I try to move in such a way as to “save” my lumbar spine from having to be plated and fused as well.  I’ve gotten used to the limitations, and when I awoke from surgery…hyperventilating while still in the operating room…hearing “breathe, baby, breathe, you’re hyperventilating, we’re on our way to recovery”…I tried moving my toes; they moved.  I had feeling, and if I walked out of there, I’d promised myself I’d pirouette again, though dancing, riding a bike, jumping and running, and were all prohibited, and, alas, the shapes of intimacy had to evolve radically, or be eliminated. 

 Each day is a day at an artist colony for me.  Moving from room to room, reconciled with my fate and in deep acceptance of my space, place and how I am to move in this world.  I walk my Bichon, Fritz Olivier, up to 16 blocks, when it is not 100 degrees or more.  It is like the monastic life I was enchanted by at 17; I wanted to be a Nun.  I would have been a bad nun, but nonetheless.  So, here we are, the Nun of Julia Avenue…the most important lessons I’ve learned are how to be still, to listen, to really listen, and to accept with grace the lily-light I’ve been given.  I can walk; I can type; I can write poetry, I can cook—even difficult dishes, if I save my hands for that purpose.  This limitation of mine makes everything I do a very decided choice; and those choices are sacred.  Do I make shortbread for my 96 year old neighbor today, or do I use my hands to work on an article about synaesthesia (a neurological condition I thought everyone had)? 

 Music was a crucial part of my healing too.  And, in the days when I was braced and unable to move about, I listened to classical music 24/7.  One of my musical friends noticed that I could name the key a piece of music was in…it was, alas, a skill associated with the healing spinal cord, and did not last, but it resulted in my friend buying me a lovely second-hand baby grande.

  I tell people I’m recovering from Crohn’s.  I believe I am.  Think it so, and it will be.  That’s been my experience so far in life.  I walk away when people tell me there is no cure.

  I,  who am considered a shut-in by my Parish, have been kindly cared for by those who bring Holy Communion, Altar flowers to brighten my days, and those who plant lilies in my flower beds.  The Priest asked me to write six different Poem / Prayers for Lent which was a most enriching, exciting learning experience and a secret dream of writing liturgies come true.  Most recently the Priest has me writing new hymns for old music.  My first was the ancient Latin hymn “Ubi Caritas”.  What I’ve written, is a poet’s transliteration of listening, listening and listening to the Latin.  Even while sleeping, I keep the music playing softly.  Absorb, then write.  Same with music as it is with poetry.  I’m realizing how closely kin those two are.

 Never am I without something meaningful to do, including spending quality time with the many good friends who visit and take care of my out-side world needs.  I have been liberated to live a life devoted to art.  It does not feel like a tight place; it is rather a large place and space of all the time there is.

On Neurosurgery

just coming back from the dead
trying to figure
what kind of language was used

the silver doors
"breathe, baby."

knives mirrored
in sterile stainless

she did not see
the bowl
for collecting her blood
she did not see
the donor bone

dipped host
her head up

What do you want GITP readers to know about you?

I don’t watch TV; I believe poetry and art, more generally, have the power to heal us, and the broken world about us.

     What do you hope to accomplish this year? 
     I want to learn more about writing songs, or poems for music.  See my second book published. 

       Are you in a tight place, and if so, what, if anything, are you doing to get out of it?  

     My physical limitations are the new status quo; I accept where I am, and go about daily trying to exist in a place of calm, deep peace & joy.

       What inspires you?

     . . . . almost everything, if I am living mindfully, alive and awake...I find inspiration in the natural world of birds, butterflies, rainstorms, overheard conversations, the midsummer stall, the midwinter hub-bu
       What is your favorite legwear? 

      Tights, if I wear any.  Something that will go in my boots of Italian, not Spanish, leather. ;-)


  1. Lara, this is an amazing post. Thanks for much for collecting it.

  2. Love, love this interview - lots to think about here ... especially this: "This limitation of mine makes everything I do a very decided choice; and those choices are sacred." I love when I can see my own limitations (anxiety/depression in particular) that way - as structures that give shape to my life, and encourage me to make more focused choices – rather than as obstacles in the way of all the million things I want to do. Tight places can feel very spacious, that way. Thanks for this post. I will be checking out her writing. T.