Leslie Ullman on the Poetry of Jan Bailey

Jan 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.

The 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.

These 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 affirming.  Later 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.

Leslie Ullman
University of Texas at El Paso

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