May 1999

Gray Jacobik

Gray Jacobik Gray Jacobik is the 1998 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize.  Her new book The Surface of Last Scattering is just out from Texas Review Press.  The Double Task received the Juniper Prize for 1997, published by University of Massachusetts Press. Recent poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Ontario Review and Ploughshares.
The Initiation    Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

In a Chesapeake night one July
        behind the VFW hall,
                Diane and I cooling off

from The Pony and The Twist,
        a voice said, That’s Betty Carter
                over there in the backseat

of that blue Dodge. She’s letting
        anybody that wants to
                have a go at her for free.

One furtive boy after another slunk up,
        looked about for on-lookers,
                opened the car’s back door

and moved in, almost, it seemed,
        on his hands and knees.
                The car rocked, steadied,

rocked again. We thought all girls
        who did it became like Betty
                whose craving sprung up

sudden and full-blown because just once
        she crossed the line. We saw boys
                acting on dares because their needs,

too, were monstrous. My friend and I,
        petting with boys most nights,
                were grazing near that precipice

ourselves. We were alarmed by
        our bodies and how close
                they were to betraying us.   

Not once did we think those boys
        were taking advantage, only that
                the body’s hunger was horrifying—

a half-dozen had not turned aside
        the wild unbridled current sweeping
                through Betty, sweeping through us,

carrying all of us out of the decent world,
        which was, I saw later, pre-sexual,
                a myth our parents perpetuated

with an effort that left them exhausted.
        We stood a long while watching
                that old blue car pitch, the music

and dusty light pouring out the open door,
        moths circling in that light, a warm
                dampness touching every inch of us.



Working Stiff    Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

We are plank-strapped, obligation-bound,
no swing or swagger left in us, yet we yearn
to give ourselves over entirely to joyful
and peaceful pursuits, to make stories
of the tidbits curiosity whispers. Perhaps
we are like sparrows trapped in cathedrals
who have forgotten the forest and sky,
the varying shades of a passing night.
Could a person waver through existence
as easily as a reed wavers in a stream, begin
and leave a task the way a daylily opens
at dawn, closes at dusk? My father used to say
I’m just a working stiff, one of the immense horde
that chugged daily into and out of Manhattan.
And it was true, I saw the glaze in his eyes.
Now it is my turn, and my daughter writes
she is exhausted with work. The way of the world.
Ad infinitum. We watch children play and can
no longer play ourselves, scorn any adult who stays
in childhood’s realm a moment too long. Below
the trills of the violin, the insistent bass viol,
the chords seeming to reign in, finally, every
frivolous note. Once I saw a skylark ascend
and hover, fly a tight circle, ascend higher,
twirl, ascend again, then plummet two hundred
feet before flying out and off across the cliffs
that rimmed a sea. Perhaps this show attracts
a mate, but freedom looked incarnate in that
bird’s flight. I will turn back to my obligations
when I complete this poem, glad for this hour
of delight, turning words on the lathe
of thought, skimming lines, attempting flight



Temperaments    Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

No one today believes bile or blood or phlegm has
a thing to do with temperament—we say seratonin,
hormones and endorphins flow at high or low tide in us.
Unstable introverts resemble Galen’s melancholics
who had, he believed, too much black bile in them.
For these gloomy brooders, uncertainty is the ground
of each day’s small resurrections. My grandfather
was sanguine, which means ruled by blood—he was
ruddy— a freckled redheaded Scotsman. Sanguine
people are cheerful and unaccountably optimistic.
Jung’s compass of the psyche has four points:
the sensuous type, the thinking man or woman,
the feeling-centered who glide through life
on emotive oils, and those governed by intuition.
Hansel was sensuous, Gretel intuitive, although
when push came to shove she found some gumption,
having developed her opposite pole, aggression
rising up like a sudden gush of yellow bile in a choleric.
Kretschmer called people who were broad, fat, short
and tended to mood swings, pyknics. I wonder
what kind of protuberances a phrenologist would find
on the skull of a pyknic? Thin people, Kretschmer thought,
tended to be unsociable, like my ex- who’s always felt
more at ease with computers than persons—
he’s a well-off forlorn soul. One classifier of types
believes people tend to like objects similar in shape
to themselves. Put a cylinder, a ball and a cube
on a table and you’ll pick up the shape most like how
you see yourself. Once I took a Thematic Apperception
Test: Shown an ambiguous picture, say of a man
in a trench coat standing under a streetlight,
you’re suppose to invent a story: He’s waiting
for his girl and they’re about to go out dancing;
his girl’s stood him up and he’s sulking over her fickle
nature. Some think each individual is unique—
even identical twins can make independent choices,
although both smoke Camels, drive Escorts and marry
women named Wanda. I like the old-fashioned words
best, the kind George Eliot might have used: a homebody,
a trifler, delicate and reticent, an uncompromising
man-on-the-move, but the liveliest pigeonholing
comes from comic-strips; milquetoast, a timid,
meek man, Casper Milquetoast, who dined on what
his name suggests; and sad sack from a blundering
World War II army private; and wimp from Wellington
Wimpy in the Popeye comic. When I was a child
my aunts would whisper to me, your mother’s high-strung,
words meant to explain her bouts of weeping and why
she would lock herself in her bedroom in the middle
of the afternoon. Because the line between nature
and nurture wavers like the silhouettes of two
hootchy-kootchy dancers, who we are, like aftershocks,
escapes whatever we say about ourselves or others,
the self transient, mercurial and too complex to type.
Still it is a pleasure to label, the joy of naming rising to
meet the human creature’s need to know. He’s a callow,
devil-may-care, ungracious sort of a fellow, while
she’s an artless dilettante, world-weary and morose      

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Gray Jacobik: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SevenThe Cortland Review