Ullman on the Poetry of Jan Bailey
Bailey's poems are graceful both in their movement and
in their choices, image after image. This grace is a
particularly womanly grace, focusing briefly on images
of garden and larger natural landscapes, intimate glimpses
of a deeply loved person, remembered or projected references
to giving birth, and moments of deep empathy and awe
in the presence of growing children. These images and
conditions are not the subjects of Bailey's poems, but
they supply a matrix that connects the poet's inner
life and the outer world. And they help to connect the
reader to the poet's uniquely generous and probing sensibility,
at its point of departure, before it plunges into deeper
and more disturbing territory.
real force behind these graceful poems is a visionary
quality that gives them scope and weight that reveals
the poet's full awareness of an unresolved and unresolvable
confusion which underlies our daily gestures and calls
for a poetry of acknowledgment and small, partial affirmations
through moments of simply seeing everything clearly.
This often means seeing far beyond the ostensible setting
and subject as the poet does in "On the Question
of Nearing," where she begins by speculating about
"the sound of the earth sliding past the sun. .
. and (shattering) over the deep/and silent oceans of
Uranus" ("Does the water move?" she asks,
dwelling up there for a moment) and ending with the
image of a green tree frog transported by mistake, with
paraphernalia from a trip to the ocean, several hours
inland to the poet's yard where "his blushed throat
hammered like December across/ the summer evenings"
for two months, "mourning. . . his loss of oleander
and the sea. . . " The poet thus dwells equally,
through an imagination honed by empathy, in worlds which
do indeed exist though one is too large and the other
too minute normally to engage our attention.
poems also veer quite firmly at times into areas that
are unbeautiful or frightening, revealing that Bailey's
love of beauty does not close her off in simple feminine
sensibility-as-surface. This Morning at the Window
for example, begins with the poet celebrating the view
of her garden, and then undergoes a startling, sleight-of-hand
transition with these lines: "Later in the day
I bend over/ a yellow crocus, the one I did not plant,
the one/ that does not appear in this poem but that
opened/ in my thinking like a dark wing Unfolding/
and I know that a woman curls her back against/ a curb,
. . . her eyes catching the shadow/ of winter at her
back.' And in a powerfully empathetic poem, "Alzheimer's,"
the poet addresses unflinchingly the particular agony
of losing a loved one even as his body continues a vigorous
life: "Now when you sleep, a voice so much like
yours/ but not you screams out in a darkness/ I can
only suppose, like the moon's other side. In poem
after poem, Bailey strives courageously to "suppose"
some form of quasi-accessible "darkness,"
accepting that darkness as "the other side"
of what appears to be and often is stable, bright, and
in the same poem she says, with moving simplicity, "I
think it is a terrible fate to listen/ with the heart,"
and yet her poems do take on that act of listening,
again and again, and manage collectively to transform
the pain of such listening through a sensibility that
heals, a sensibility buttressed by genuine strength
of character. Grace, in Bailey's work, acts not as a
means of control or closure, but as a way of keeping
the spirit supple.
Midnight in the Guest Room