Objects. Simple, inanimate, quotidian, and when looked at with intimate focus, the subject of some of the works of art I love best.* So, for 2016’s monthly series*, the topic will be: objects. And I’m kicking it off with a look at Laura Jensen’s poem “Bad Boats” from her (out of print but find-able) collection of the same name.
*I would link to an artist I saw recently as a for instance (in Elle Decor I think it was? but maybe not), if I could have found this morning the little piece of magazine page I ripped out to save amongst all the other bits of magazine pages I have ripped out to save. She does paintings of take-out boxes that I was quite taken with. Some day I will write a poem about the unstackability of glossy ripped-out magazine pages and my inability to not rip them out and keep them anyway. But anyway.
*2012 was Months, 2013 was Animals, 2014 music, and last year…well I admit I got a little bored with my choice of Famous People last year so there are only 6. So calling it a Monthly series was something of a fib, but I’ll make it true again this year.
“Bad Boats” is a 14-line poem which begins, “They are like women because they sway. / They are like men because they swagger.” And it continues through more of her trademark turning of unexpected corners, her evocative descriptions, including as a contrast “The drifting / logs are good: they are taking their punishment. / But the bad boats are ready to be bad […]”
I first heard of Laura Jensen at Open Books once a few years back, when John (who publishes as J.W. Marshall) quoted the last line of “Bad Boats” to me*: “They are bad boats and they hate their anchors.” I got a huge grin on my face and an actual shiver down my spine at the same time, and it’s been my favorite last line since.
* Laura Jensen is a poet’s poet. She’s a poet other poets tell you to read, that you must read. I briefly googled her this morning and came across mention of poets including Linda Bierds, Laura Kasischke, and Norman Dubie telling students they really must read Laura Jensen.
The word ‘bad’ is used 4 times in addition to the title, and the repetition—the sound of the consonants, the bs, the d, the ts, that ‘a’ to ‘oa’ that reshapes your mouth—becomes more and more delicious to say as you read on. First the boats are ‘ready to be bad’, but then in the image following “they are bad boats / because they cannot wind their own rope”, a shift from calling them bad for their attitude to calling them bad for their limitations as an object. But then it’s back to attitude, though this time a sort of praise, “In their egomania they are glad / for the burden of the storm the men are shirking”.*
*There’s word choice for meaning and word choice for rhythm, and “egomania” does it all. It is the longest word in the poem, and in that line is surrounded by single-syllable words, such that those 5 syllables bunch together all sped-up, a control of rhythm typical of how Jensen makes this poem so full of attitude beyond the image.
The moving from argument to argument, from reason to reason for calling the boats bad boats, from one-line sentences to enjambed longer ones, the internal rhymes, the similes, all of it builds to that final declarative, that essence of these boats, that perfect last line, that simple fact: “They are bad boats and they hate their anchors.”
More about Laura Jensen:
- If you’re a New Yorker subscriber, you can read a number of her poems from the 70s and 80s online here.
- Oliver de la Paz blog post on Laura Jensen (2011)
- Essay by Peter Harris in the Virginia Quarterly Review on Laura Jensen, Gregory Orr, and Thomas Lux (1987)
- Warren Fong on Jensen’s collection Memory in The Rumpus (2014)
- And Pleiades issue 28.2 has a round table on Jensen I haven’t gotten my hands on yet (2008)