Jackknife: New and Selected Poems by Jan Beatty

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017


The opening poem of Jan Beatty’s spring-loaded collection Jackknife, “Inside the Cardinal,” introduces her commanding voice: “I’m in the belly of a bird and I’m singing red— / my sharp crest spiking when I down-slur. / I’m your mother’s voice as she spots me / from the old porch, the shrill / of the stand-up Yamaha, the vibrating e-string / … Will you love my loud, metallic song?”

Yes, you probably will—even if you prefer smooth jazz to hard rock. This is a beautifully designed book, beginning with the Andy Warhol cover photo—assorted knives heaped together, steel, bone, ebony. As I read, I kept running my fingers over the braille-like letters of the title. The book consists of 22 new poems, followed by 53 poems boiled down from Beatty’s four previous books, Mad River (1995), Boneshaker (2002), Red Sugar (2008), and The Switching/Yard (2013), all published by University of Pittsburgh Press. This coiled rendering of her earlier books also delivers new poems that do not disappoint: They snap open, pierce and slice, and jackknife in unexpected directions like semi-trailer trucks.

Beatty’s searing personal history drives the new and old poems in this collection. Born in Pittsburgh’s Roselia Foundling Home, she was adopted and raised by a working-class Pittsburgh family, her father a steel worker, mother a housewife. This is a book of bodies, music, Pittsburgh, violence, trains, mothers and fathers, sex, loss, Jim Morrison, the West, and long love. Beatty embraces the world—ugly, beautiful, strange—and holds it up to the light.

These aren’t poems that soothe. Take “Stricken,” in which the speaker sits in Uncle Sam’s Subs “splitting / a cheesesteak” with her friend Kat, when Kat says: “I think I should buy a gun.” Kat’s on medication for schizophrenia. “I give her a hard look—You don’t need a gun. / No one is after you. / She stares back: You might be after me.” Kat wants that gun . . . “What’s it like to know you’re right / you’re in danger— / and the world says no? / Every woman I know has lived that.” Whether set in a sub shop, outside a foundling hospital, or at a slag dump, these poems weaponize the personal—exposing power structures, exploring class, sexuality, violence, and human fallibility and passion.

Still, the poet allows for beauty. The book includes love poems to Beatty’s husband and adopted dad, and poems such as “The Kindness,” in which the speaker stumbles upon an elk with two calves. The calves’ fragility and awkwardness trigger a memory of the speaker herself years ago entering a psych hospital “broken & stripped down,” when someone reaches around to open a door for her, a kindness that echoes down the years. The word “anthem” springs to mind. As Beatty writes in “Against Suicide,” “Because fuck it—just wait / Because your heart, exploding— / could open & / —yes, you have a right / —but the fire in you could talk / & blow up the dead /…”

Given Beatty’s visceral subject matter, it’s easy to overlook how well-crafted these poems are. Take the beginning of “Abortion with Gun Barrel,” a poem about a child getting an abortion:

The 12-year-old walks thin, like a child/
her hair alive in vibrating threads
in the clinic light.
Her mother: My daughter. I give my permission.
And the girl cannot be real, or the sky
would burn—not bleed like it does in
the waiting room of grown women.

Beatty uses a series of short i’s and the repetition of the “in” sound (thin, in, in, clinic, give, permission, it, in, and women), as well as the long i’s of like, child, alive, vibrating, light, my, I, my, sky, and like, and slant end-rhymes, to subtly infuse music into a poem in which something more overt might jar. The line break at “in” in the sixth line creates a slant rhyme but also alters the expected rhythm, and the reader lands in that waiting room—one of several places in the poem where one might think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” if a darker version.

Beatty has acknowledged that her new poems continue to explore subjects and themes of her earlier books. Yet one of the pleasures of this collection is the way characters and places appear and reappear, new poems enriching the old, circling back, searching. Still, Beatty is no stranger to the future. The book closes with a love poem, “Notes on a Nevada Flood,” dedicated to Don, Beatty’s longtime husband. After all the body, blood, and turmoil, it’s almost a surprise where we end up, on a train headed West:

Night coming now,
& the hills mounding up as we get closer
to the continental divide of you & I—of death—
No stopping the water:
almost pristine in the quiet.

—Jennifer Stewart Miller