The Plum-Stone Game
In her third book of poems, Kathleen Jesme asks what happens if the ordinary ways of knowing are taken away—if one is suddenly unable to see or hear or has been stripped of the familiar past. What begins to show through when absence (or darkness) creates a different inner landscape? In five distinct but interconnected poem cycles, Jesme excavates these inner landscapes and discovers word artifacts to reveal new directions to dig, always bringing the reader somewhere unexpected.
“The Plum-Stone Game is a delicate reconstruction of sense-memory and its eros: with archeological precision Kathleen Jesme revitalizes the broken vessel of the world, giving us one beautiful version of its amphora after another. The poems hold; they retain light and joy and the fierce electric charges of the body. Here is a poet who has wearied of the ways in which language has been used to show us the impossibility of meaning. She is refreshingly unafraid of the sensual power of poetry, its difficulties, and its ability to comprehend the larger sphere of being.”—D.A. Powell
“I pay homage to Kathleen Jesme’s The Plum-Stone Game. The meaning and/of its music, the marvelous lexicon. Its playful and moving millefiori. Its singular views.”—Carol Snow
Two from I will not let thee go except thou bless me
Speak to me fidelities: a shift of traitors each its own
thyme, each a secret kept discreet. One for the
spackles of light the leaves change, one for the sheets
of fragments. But while she was away, monstrous
hounds grew from her thoughts, tracking. She missed
the feeding. Is it a garden if she didn’t interfere is it a
garden if it cannot be left? Now she sees people
canting and wants to turn, awry.
Shall we examine betrayal? The small lesions on
the skin that begin as ordinary. Try casting them off
into the wind. It grows its yellow seeds, scales of fish,
feathers and fly wings. Pinch them. Today’s business
is obedience. She couldn’t see anything but green
from the window and the green made her wild.
Make an application to submission. Who would write
Copyright ©2009 by Kathleen Jesme
“Jesme’s third collection is a sweeping book made up of serial poems—long sequences of short, tonally related lyrics—that meditate on pastoral, aesthetic and domestic themes. The two longest series, ‘The Little Hour,’ and ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me,’ delve deep into the sensuality of brief, everyday occurrences with a radiant clarity. The speaker of ‘In June or July’ (part of ‘The Little Hour’) could be talking about the poem’s author: ‘She uses the smallest sensual experience— / her fingers pulling apart the tiny rootlets of peat moss / and then separating the plants.’ Jesme focuses on and illuminates small experiences. Many of the poems are thick with aesthetic revelry, and while taken singly they can underwhelm, their cumulative effect can be mesmerizing. There’s attention to the power of lyrical lacunae, as in the poems of Cole Swenson and Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, but there are also traces of narrative woven throughout, most notably in the opening prose poem series ‘Lives of the Saints’: ‘I was a boy like other boys, except that I had murdered my sister. There was a lot of atonement required.’ It’s tantalizing, and shows Jesme’s gift for creating atmosphere, something she demonstrates throughout these luminous glimpses of various lives.”—Publishers Weekly
“The pineal gland is an organ in the brain said to be the seat of insight, spirit, intuition, the mystic’s ‘house of the third eye.’ Sadly it is also said to calcify over time. Various strategies are suggested to open the pineal gland, to strengthen and purify this mysterious center of the mind. . . . Nowhere have I read that poetry, either in reading, listening nor writing is a pathway to opening the pineal gland as means of spiritual purification, but surely, upon reading Kathleen Jesme’s The Plum-Stone Game, this book should be added to the list of detoxification options for promoting good psychic health. . . .
“‘Shall we examine betrayal? The small lesions on the skin that begin as ordinary . . . ’ Nothing in The Plum-Stone Game is ordinary. A reader is left to follow a pocket watch to which time will not be obedient. The hours, a relentless beauty, page after page, begin in the prose of saints, moving through sinuous lyric, cataloging the relics of a found ethnography and returning again to prose. Her movements are subtle, sparse, languid, as startling as the arrival of desert songbirds, pallid in the snow sun, those whose messages are carried alone through red hibiscus. Into the ear, the intimate distance of stars, sawdust, flecked notes.” from the review in The Burning Chair by Maureen Alsop
For the ten years before I began my MFA, I raised German Roller Canaries. Rollers are bred exclusively for their song, a soft, exotic combination of sounds that have special names like knorre, hollow roll, water roll, schockel, glücke. The names are onomatopoeic. These birds are the most musical creatures I have ever heard—I fell in love with their song.
I had received my B.A. in English Literature from the University of Minnesota and then gone into a career as a designer and writer in the budding industry of computer-based learning. There was no music in it, but it was, and is, good work. Still, poetry continued to press its case. I left the birds behind and got my MFA from Warren Wilson College. You can raise canaries or write poems, I found: both require a dedication and concentration that omit much else from possibility.
I like to think of myself as a keen observer of the natural world. I live in a log house with many windows overlooking five acres of rolling hills and trees. The hills have been here since the last ice age. The trees we planted about 18 years ago. They are now 30 feet tall, but still pliant in the wind. The birds come and go with the seasons. None of them sounds like a German Roller Canary, but they are sweet singers, all the same. My work will always contain at its core a seed of the natural world, which my father introduced me to as a child growing up on Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota.
I love poetry with music in it. Also poetry that speaks to the silences and liminal spaces at the edges of human experience. First and foremost, Dickinson. Then Hopkins, C.D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, Louise Glück (part German Roller Canary, perhaps?), Anne Carson, Roethke, Bishop—now I have named too many, so must leave out too many more.
Reflecting on the early life of Helen Keller and her relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan, I began this book as an exploration of what we can know of the world and ourselves when hampered by sensory absence. How are we connected when the usual means of communication have been taken away? What does it take to bring an encapsulated self out of isolation? How does love call forth a more complete being? These were some of the originating questions I was curious about. Many of my reflections on these ideas are contained in The Plum-Stone Game, especially in the second poem sequence, “The Little Hour.”
A friend once said to me, “Poetry is a metaphor for psychic work.” I am confident that whatever I am working on at any given time is part of a whole, most of which I can’t see with my limited vision. In most cases, for me it is a slow and painstaking excavation, one spoonful of dirt at a time. What is revealed is usually small and seemingly insignificant. I try to hold on to the possibility that it may lead to something with greater completeness. Sometimes it does. The first sequence in the book, “Lives of the Saints,” was meant for a different manuscript. Somehow, it insinuated itself into this one, only then to make it plain to me that this is where it belonged. The poems are the invented stories of childhoods of imaginary saints, told in what might be their voices. But we all had the childhood of a saint, so it wasn’t that hard to hear.
I love repetition in poetry. Perhaps a legacy of nursery rhymes. Or simply of childhood itself. One of the first poetic dicta I remember hearing was, “Don’t repeat a word in a poem.” But I think words are big enough, like bells, to carry all sorts of overtones, and can be struck any number of times in order to hear the complete range of what is pealing in them.
Recently, a poet colleague told me I use words like banana peels: You can be walking along and suddenly you’re going in a completely different direction. I like that. The element of unpredictability so superbly inherent in the English language, with its glorious ambiguity and capacity for sudden turns. Reader, I don’t mean to make you fall, but I’d like you to end up arriving somewhere unexpected.