'Rock Candy' juxtaposes hard and soft, bitter and sweet

UAS professor Vernon releases debut book of poetry

Posted: Thursday, October 01, 2009

In her debut collection, Jenifer Rae Vernon's verse celebrates "sweetness in bleak times," the raw beauty that despite dire surroundings elevates the ordinary, creating moments of triumph and empowerment. These moments become jewels in the rough country of rural western Washington.

Despite the harsh experience of working misery-whips (two man saws) in logging camps or grave digging in Okinawa, the author's Grandpa knows beauty when he finds it, in the form of hummingbirds at the feeders Grandma kept full "and never teased him for loving / something small and insignificant."

Evocative of performance poetry and the oral tradition, Vernon's words rise up off the page as if spoken by a cast of readers. Using simple phrasing and structure, and strong repetition of vernacular dialog, bible verse and national pledges, she calls forth central themes of distrust and vulnerability.

There is no shortage of rough in the 32 poems contained in "Rock Candy," a violent, erotic, honest portrait drawn from the poet's childhood memories and oral family histories. The narrative is at its finest when tilling the dark storied earth from which her family's history has grown. From Great Grandma Callie, who knocks out her husband with an iron skillet to keep him from abusing the children, to the addictions of Aunt Samantha, who through "morphine falling to clouds of cream" and gunfire confronts Uncle Frank about his sexual abuse of their twin daughters, these and other family secrets become "a revolution of truth." The effect leaves the reader slack-jawed, reeling perhaps in recollections of their own family's improprieties.

Vernon's artful use of refrains like, "string bean," "peaches" and "hip-switch" work like a "steady jump start" of cigarettes lit "cherry to cherry" to keep a consistent, dark, confessional tone throughout the collection. The women we encounter, the "hard-rock-candy ladies," come to embody the recurring juxtaposition of the hard and the soft, the butter and the battery acid.

"Elegy for Chastity" is the body of the collection - the heart rather - a fierce, raw portrait of friendship, pain and poverty in a dirty river Pacific Northwest town. The 13-page homage is an intimate, disturbing biographical journey which emphasizes that every life, even the most scarred and tragic, is "necessary" and deserving of more than a newspaper headline. "Yelm woman slain by ex-boyfriend, 28, died Sunday, / from gunshot, wound to abdomen, July twenty seven, 1998." An author's note identifies the woman as Chastity Batram (1970-1998): "My firecracker friend, / busted flat life up like silver jacks / on night-sky playground tar, / drag racer sparking stars / you were necessary."

The collection ends with the poem, "Blackberry Pie" which was featured on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac in August and is a sweet tribute quite in contrast to the sour, bitter images of the early part of the collection. Recalling the "magic heat to vanilla ice cream / purple dream" of hot homemade pie and ice cream, daily notes from mom and smiley faces, the final stanzas seem to ask: Is this life really that bad? Have these people that we call our family truly ruined our childhoods, our lives? Or, like any experience, are these things less severe when put in perspective? "And pie too, is sometimes / tart."

• Jonas Lamb is a freelance writer and former Juneau Public Library employee who recently relocated to Portland, Ore.

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