Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Relying on Her Internal Compass: The Journey of Jenny Sadre-Orafai

(review by JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp)

In the spring of 2015, amidst the finalization of a merger between Southern Polytechnic State University and Kennesaw State University, a colleague at an English Faculty meeting told me about poet and associate professor, Jenny Sadre-Orafai. A few days later, I introduced myself to Jenny and knew right away that I wanted to read her work. The result was and is a desire to bear witness to her journey. 

Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Paper, Cotton, Leather is a collection bound by grief, courage, and craft. For those unfamiliar with the title’s context, each textile corresponds to the traditional anniversary gift for the first three years of marriage. This journal of difficult truths; likewise, is a cumulative collection of shadowy interlopers and lost days gathered while the speaker finds meaning in starting life anew.

What might surprise readers is that unlike the chronologically linear title, this collection begins at the end. In the first poem, “In Our Memory,” we suddenly appear graveside during the eulogy for the speaker’s marriage. Civilization is measured not by evolution, but by the contrast of nature in its pure state (“wind/and climate and animal/and plant and ocean and land”) and love (“an uncivilized romance) in its distorted one.   The book’s tense tone is firmly wedged between the denial of emotional depth (“You will say: we didn’t have real/history before we met) and the evidence of its weight in the lines,

I’ve never made it this far
out in the waves, this far
out in the heart. The hurt
is bearable most days.

This type of tight syllabic thread appears often in Sadre-Orafai’s narratives. Most notably, poems such as “It Might Pull You Under,” “Distant Heat,” and “Forecast” contain both visual and metered closed-fisted punches. “Distant Heat,” in particular, is a visually stocky poem that leaves shrapnel in its wake.

Distant Heat
My thunder splinters
you in three, thrashes
you fantastic, scatters
your blooms or bones
across this ground in
the dry season. Here is
what’s left for anyone
who could want to root
your skinned stems,
eager apologies.

Between the slanted rhyme and alliteration, the reader is presented with an image of that same primal power from the first poem, but this time the intended “you” is reduced to the dust blown from one’s hands after crumbling leaves.

Although Sadre-Orafai’s integration of craft is most evident in the villanelle, “Theories Are Fog,” the book’s courage lies within what I liken to the fifth and final stage of the Hero’s Journey: the reintegration into society. Her poem, “The Dive,” exemplifies this stage best.

The Dive

I relearn how to press my body
against other bodies. My slick flesh
like scales, like fish tail, hums across
men’s spines during afternoons. 

I teach my mouth words like sunshine,
Cupcake. The mouth, once a fist,
now can’t help but smile when it wags
these out, a loud chorus learned. 

My legs remember how to braid
themselves in with other legs,
hairy and sometimes freckled,
that hear the gloss of my calves.

In the first and third stanzas, the reader gets the sense that this is how it feels to emerge from the muck of grief – self-conscious and deliberate. It’s as if the speaker has been practicing how to breathe before remembering that we just do.

 Men’s legs feel a certain way against a woman’s skin, and the synesthetic image of an experience that is at once tactile, visual, and auditory reminds us that the primal will override the cerebral when we finally let our guard down.

Once this is accomplished, it’s on to the language of the light-hearted. We know this is no easy task. Solemnity does not tolerate whimsy; it does not want to share its space for fear of not being taken seriously. The speaker writes, “The mouth, once a fist, now can’t help but smile…” and our communal relief is palpable. She’s made it back.
Product Details

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of Paper, Cotton, Leather and four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Linebreak, Eleven Eleven, Redivider, Thrush Poetry Journal, PANK, Rhino, The Bakery, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Her prose has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, Delirious Hem, The Los Angeles Review, and South Loop Review. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp received her MFA from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, Public.Republic.net, and Bigger than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems. She is a Lecturer of English at Kennesaw State University and serves as secretary of the board of directors for the Georgia Writers Association.