A Fitful Beginning: On Philip Jenks’s The Elms Left Elm Street

The Elms Left Elm Street , by Philip Jenks.
Plane Buckt Press, Takoma Park Maryland, 1994.


On the subject of Philip Jenks, an email correspondent recently wrote me this: “I sometimes divide the world into people who love Phil’s work & people who don’t,” adding that this division is “a narrow but helpful measure.” Following this measure, I’m going to assume that if you are here, reading this essay, that you, like me, are in the former camp; that you’ve read Jenks’s full-length books, On the Cave You Live In, and My First Painting Will Be “The Accuser,” and maybe even his recent autobiographical e-chap of photography and poetry, How Many of You Are You — and that you love all of them. Yet, even among Jenks’s fans, not many seem to know about his first book-form publication, a chapbook called The Elms Left Elm Street.

Published by Zach Barocas’s defunct Plane Buckt Press in 1994, The Elms Left Elm Street can give much insight into the poetic beginnings of Jenks. When On the Cave You Live In was published in 2002, it seemed to many (including Benjamin Friedlander, who wrote a sympathetic, in depth analysis of the book) that a young poet with an already highly developed, unique poetic had arrived. Yet in Elms we see an even younger Jenks working out the poetic concerns that appear more fully realized in his following books. Which is to say that Elms is a flawed book (how many first books aren’t?), and which is not to say that the poems that make up the book are all bad, or not worthy of attention. Indeed, several of them made their way into Cave with only minor changes in punctuation, including “It Was,” “Shed,” and “Skin.” The latter two of these poems appear in Elms as part of “The Shed Poems,” one of the two longer sequences that make up the bulk of the book, the other of which is “The Fits.” And it is in “The Fits” that readers of Jenks can see him developing some of the major elements that run through much of his work thus far, especially the simultaneous engagement of different modes of perception, as well as a related engagement — the writing of and through the experience of epilepsy.

In Peter O’Leary’s Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness, the following statement is quoted from Jenks, on his understanding of the relationship between his epilepsy and poetic practice: “It is the grounding and source of my relationship with God and everything that this word entails. It is horrible, it is awful in so many ways but tucked into it is also a palpable bliss.” In this we see the familiar conflation of God with the sign, along with the enjoinment of binary states — horror and bliss — which suggests that Jenks’s epilepsy is nothing less than a mystical experience. And this, in turn, makes “The Fits” a fascinating sequence, especially since much of it is made up of astonishingly frank, literal descriptions of the physiological states that occur before, during, or after a seizure. Take for example this passage from “Deja vu:”

Aura precedes the deja vu,
immediate surrounding of blue wax
and a frightening smell,
it will put a jackal on its haunches.
Taste of gun-metal spit on strings.
Words actually sink through skin
and are physically felt running arm to arm.

Or take this passage from “It:”

My eyes were stuffed with memory
as they clipped the motion of
Brennan turning toward the light
in the hall by the door.
Seconds later, my arms looked
funny as the gun-metal taste
was upon me.

Or this passage from “subway fits and kitchens:”

A frightening chain between
blood and electricity is evident
in the emerging squeal
of something being crushed to
death. That is, the impulse
of a neuron is to stifle.
The body believes in merging gas-fields.

These passages, reminiscent of Hannah Weiner’s descriptions of altered perceptual states risen out of extreme physiological conditions in The Fast, ground Jenks’s work, like Weiner’s, in a poetics of variegated perception; we can see here Jenks’s mystical experience of epilepsy as an answer to Weiner’s clairvoyance. And here we can see Jenks directly addressing what constitutes his poetic grounding — epilepsy — before turning his attention more directly to the immanence of the divine (often embodied through a “you” in all of the books that have followed Elms), in what amounts to another area of the mystical. This seems all the more evident given that Jenks’s ubiquitous, nearly trademarked “you” hardly appears at all in Elms; he was, in terms of duration, before “you,” slogging through self-perception in order to get outside to the space of “you,” the mystical path of epilepsy leading outward to the divine — a divine which, further, includes its own absence.


Jenks, at my request, leant me his only copy of The Elms Left Elm Street when I was his student at Portland State University in 2004. I remember walking by him as I was leaving his class, while he was talking with another student. He quickly handed me the book and said something about how this book is more formal than his others, before turning around to resume his conversation. Yet there are only two poems in Elms which strictly adhere to traditional forms: “Store,” which dallies in blank verse and which is, in my opinion, dispensable; and “Smokestack,” a sestina, which is also an earlier version of “Passing Notes,” a poem which appears in On the Cave You Live In.

It is interesting to compare “Smokestack” to “Passing Notes.” The first stanza is nearly identical in both poems. The version I give here is from “Smokestack:”

Even further South of here worshippers
attend to their beliefs, plumed in the wilderness
of a blood-letting
carnival of despair and hope.
In Gettysburg, the most intimate sacrifice
is initiated by two sliced hands

There are two changes made to this stanza in “Passing Notes.” The bigger of the two is a revision in the fourth line — its last word, “hope,” is rewritten as “promise.” Right away, we can see Jenks cutting the sestina out of the poem: a casting off of received form which is perhaps analogous to the difference between hope and promise. And this instance of revision could also possibly be the embodiment of poetic maturation: Jenks is shedding a youthful poetic hope for the affirmation of poetic promise, which occurs, in “Passing Notes,” as a rejection of received form. This can be seen much more clearly in a revision that occurs in the second stanza: the line “They lie recumbent in the exhausted fumes of American hope” in “Smokestack,” is changed to “recumbent fumes of American hope” in “Passing Notes.” In the first, we can see a young poet blatantly attempting to capture that elusive Great Line; yet in the second, we see a more subdued, humble poet. It is telling of Jenks that he did not altogether throw out the line — he recognized its essential place within the poem, and simply cut the distracting flash.

The 39 lines of “Smokestack” are reduced to the 19 lines that make up “Passing Notes.” While much is altogether thrown out, a remarkable amount of material is kept, but condensed in the rich, fractured language that is Jenks’s hallmark — the appreciation of which divides the world into fans of Philip Jenks on one side, and on the other the haters, the ignorant, or those whose hands are welded to their ears. But, in all seriousness, what makes comparing “Smokestack” to “Passing Notes” so engaging — or, for that matter, what makes reading The Elms Left Elm Street against Jenks’s still growing body of work so engaging — is to see the youthful, fitful beginning of a poet whose powers, over time, have increased — powers which are still increasing, and which show promise to continue to increase for many years to come.

Joseph Bradshaw (© 2007)