A Hard Knock Life
Review by Erin Adair-Hodges
Jenifer Rae Vernon
West End Press
Rock Candy, the newest release from Albuquerque's West End Press, is a collection of 32 poems by Jenifer Rae Vernon that meditates on the lives of working-class Americans, primarily in the writer's native Pacific Northwest. The book is populated by the kinds of characters that pop up in a Raymond Carver story: the long-suffering who stew in alcohol and silence. Rock Candy exists as if to say that even out of such hardness, a little beauty can be found.
The six sections lay out a dark landscape filled with wreckage and loss. The women are battered but strong, their beauty having burned out early. The men exist as both predators and playthings. And then there's the children; dirty and scarred and wise, they're treated roughly by adults, as if to harden them for survival in their dreary lives.
The poems feature little metaphor, focusing instead on employing a voice that's both colloquial and concerned with wordplay. Full rhymes are everywhere and are used to flip a word inside out until it becomes something else: "The river and the people you come from / soft son, little one, too young un-done." At times, the rhymes are clunky, coming at the end of a line with a thud and a wink, as if to say, See what I've done? Mostly, though, the sounds evoke a sense of rebellion that mirrors the content of the poems, such as in "Elegy for Chastity," a piece about a murdered friend: "he wanted to shrink you thumb-size, pop you in his mouth / like a Jolly Rancher green eat everything / he'd been dreaming about spit shining those thighs / fingers crawling in your jeans, rock suck lips mouth pop smoke rings."
Though there are political poems and sex poems and motherhood poems, Rock Candy's best bits happen early on when Vernon looks at her family's mistakes and misery. A hallmark of American poetry since Walt Whitman is its unsentimentality, offering the plain parts of life with a truthfulness that makes them feel epic. These small stories—ones of the Great Depression and a ruined aunt who shot her no-good husband—reverberate in the mind of the audience. If the details differ from those of our family's tales, the spirit of them is shared and wholly American.
Ultimately, the idea behind Rock Candy is more compelling than its execution. Much of the meaning isn't intimated—it's exclaimed. The consistently odd enjambment (how lines are broken) is unsettling, and though I think the poet would make an argument that it's intended to be so, it's too distracting to work. Still, as a debut collection, there is something in here worth looking at. It's a very human work, flaws and all.
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