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A Review of: Vacancies
by Jeffery Donaldson

The word vacancy is surely more cheerful than other terms of emptiness: gap, fissure, gulf, hole, void. These latter terms point to something missing, a lack or absence of what might otherwise still be there. A vacancy on the other hand is full of promise and opportunity; the suite is vacant; no one has preceded you or laid claim to what might be yours; you are free to move in. Of course vacancies, where property is concerned, are more associated with rentals than with owned accommodation. You can make your deposit, transport and arrange your things, but the place isn't yours to keep, and eventually, when the grim lease expires, you will leave. Jennings's sensibility, insofar as his title and several of his poems invite a guess at it, stands somewhere between Wallace Stevens's imaginative clearings-late winter emptinesses that reveal a "readiness for first bells"-and Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station", with its world of temporary stop-overs and high-strung intransigence. But still more centrally, this first volume of poems is about limits, about what might hold or contain a unified life:

"She looks at the walls,
the room's shape.
Her mind dispenses
old possessions
into new homes.
She wonders
at the prospect
of the new,
thinks empty
space audacious
in the face of memory."

Our possessions make a kind of memory theatre; passing days turn to the furnishings that in time make an architecture of their own, more expressive of our intimate, loving arrangements than the walls that housed them. This is property, as Northrop Frye once wrote, in the sense of what is proper to one's life, or as in the french, what is one's own. But Jennings is equally as conscious of how poorly we possess such private property. The longest section of this little book-and the one most evocative of its unity-is "Elgin County Estate Auction", where the gatherings of a long life are dispersed into the marketplace:

"You are here represented in a world of things
brought to a barn in a pasture to a grudging
into an incongruous parking lot

Your accumulated offerings
escape their sovereign chronology
and scatter in a creative entropy."

A dissipation of energy. The scene recalls the image of sparagmos, the tearing apart of a body and dispersing it to the elements. A sense of sacrifice and pillage pervades the series-mercenary dealers winding covetously among the tables-but it is countered by a tender speculative inquiry into the actual belongings of a life-who lift this doll, that antique lamp under our imaginative inspection. Their passing into these poems surely embodies something of their recreative potential, and Jennings seems aware of the fact. He gets telling work done in that phrase "creative entropy," which seems an interesting variation on what Wallace Stevens would have called decreation. In Jennings's sense, for any winding down to be creative there would have to be some sense of the dispersed property becoming part of a kind of cultural composting, an entering into other lives in their own hoardings and arrangements. The same might be said of any poetry that lasts (I can see a poetics of echo working itself out in the idea, obviously relevant to some of Jennings's own poems, for instance his Stevensian "Motivation for Metaphor").
The scatterings of property recalls the original initiative behind all notions of property, for nothing is more proper to us than our own body. The spaces that Jennings looks into, dreams of occupying, enters, and departs from, are as often our own shapes and forms as architectural structures. But with an elegiac turn, our bodies too show up most of the time uninhabited, alienated, vacated:

"Betrayal stalks the cornfield.
Old Jack Strawhead's in his usual place
crucified in Grampa's old black topcoat
and garbage bags for pants. Human
but for hands,
he's a menacing grotesque
beneath his murder of ravens.
His hat, upturned in the dirt,
gathers rainwater like a bath
and his fierce canvas face,
torn to scraps for stalks of grey matter,
cradles two small eggs, like dreams."

A lovely idea this last one: the dilapidated shell of a scarecrow, cobbled together out of spare human and natural parts, fails at the work of deterrence it was made for. Its mind forms an actual and figurative nest of grey matter and nurses to life what it should otherwise be keeping at bay. And so a broken body gets on with its creative work, in particular a work that it could hardly have managed when it was whole. In the fine sestina "Fetishcraft", and in a sadder register, comforting dolls are created to make up for whatever was missed in the loved ones they were made to resemble. The ransacking of an old clothes closet becomes the resurrection of a body in time:

"Look long enough and you're looking at a body tailored
by time to each skirt, jacket, cardigan....
A body once at home in ruby, violet, emerald. Not tall,
but broad in
the shoulders, strong if not large. Modest about necklines
but not
quite shy, strong and vital even in age. A presence
preserved in the artisan's hand."

In the end then these various vacancies are not about persevering absences, but presences preserved. The front cover photograph shows one of the empty stone bodies of the Peterborough Petroglyphs, whose free-limbed ecstatic dance is uncannily reminiscent of Blake's "Glad Day" or "Albion" (itself eerily evoked in a later poem about, of all things, mattresses). The cavity of the body is carved out in three dimensions; its airy mass cupped in stone.
To fill out such a debut performance, one would only want to see these revelations embodied in the poetry's own body, its prosody, tone, voicings, schematic and formal intelligences. I've no space to go into detail, but in a fine piece entitled "If, Then This. Then That", the rhetoric of a quasi-philosophical cause-effect logic is applied to a whimsical lounging about on a weekend afternoon (If we are doing such and such, it must be Saturday...). What happens though is that the logic gives way to a syntax of elaboration, a luxurious suspension of its algorithms, concessions made to each swaying from argument, and a patient allowance for imaginative apercus along the way. The poem takes its time, as it were. Jennings's distinctive tone has the absorbing feel of the pantomimist whose mock palm-probings create the walls they seem to press against. And all the while the body is filled out, cleared in a sense for whatever unspoken word might choose to move into it, as into a promising vacancy.

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