Book Review: The Crossing Over by Jen Karetnick
Jen Karetnick is the author of four full-length poetry collections, including The Treasures That Prevail (Whitepoint Press, 2016), finalist for the 2017 Poetry Society of Virginia Book Prize, and The Burning Where Breath Used to Be (WordTech Communications, 2020). The winner of the 2017 Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Contest, the 2016 Romeo Lemay Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize, she is also the author of four other poetry chapbooks, including Bud Break at Mango House, winner of the 2008 Portlandia Prize. Jen is also the author/co-author of four cookbooks, including Ice Cube Tray Recipes: 75 Easy and Creative Kitchen Hacks for Freezing, Cooking, and Baking with Ice Cube Trays (Skyhorse, June 2019). She received an MFA in poetry from University of California, Irvine, and an MFA in fiction from University of Miami. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, JAMA, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Ovenbird, Salamander, and Tampa Review. She is co-founder/co-editor of the daily online literary journal, SWWIM Every Day. Jen works as the dining critic for MIAMI Magazine and as a freelance lifestyle journalist.
A Review of Jen Karetnick's The Crossing Over
Jen Karetnick’s The Crossing Over is an expedition, repurposing the conceit of a boat to explore the significance of a journey over its destination. The boat is animated, personified, and in some instances, the boat faces a transmutation in order to highlight the importance of what can be carried, and what does the carrying. The transportation of bodies, stories, and morals, is given privilege.
For instance, in “Imperfect Authentic Cadence: Music Theory for the Mare Nostrum,” Katernick uses music theory to demonstrate the “Mare Nostrum” as the carrier of sound. In some instances, the images of sound hold multiple definitions to provide turbulent characteristics of the sea, which are a representation of the discord found in people. The title alludes to a masked conflict subsiding between harmonious notes: “imperfect” impedes on the “authentic cadence.” The beginning stanza draws the “Mare Nostrum” as orderly: “the waves line up / like chords, predictable as soldiers.” The poem's first simile uncovers an uncertainty in the waves claiming harmonious attributes through the comparison of “chords,” and, in the same way, the simile between “soldiers” and “chords” questions the uniformity of the “soldiers.” In opening the piece with a simile, Karetnick suggests the susceptibility of the sea’s sounds and the malleable denotations used to define this sea. After the brief pause in the second line, the poem turns into the disorder that is implied from the beginning: “whole notes blasted onto the unarmed / staff—bullets from a full clip—a progression of archaic sounds.” The semblance between music and war share a likeness in both appearance and attitude. The “Mare Nostrum” exhibits behaviors of musical consonance that is parallel to the soldier’s conformity, yet both images easily shift into dissonance through the discordance of sounds that intend to cause harm such as the “bullets.”
In the third stanza, moving into the fourth and fifth stanza, of “Imperfect Authentic Cadence: Music Theory for the Mare Nostrum,” the poem continues the illusion of harmony, until the pattern breaks:
The current is ictus and takt, the sea foam
The movement of the “Mare Nostrum” is directed by “ictus and takt,” and while in a musician’s lexicon “ictus” refers to a rhythmical metric, in medical jargon “ictus” refers to a stroke or seizure, as if the poem means to veil the word of its double-meaning. The significance in “ictus” is in the load of the word, its ability to carry over two meanings that conflict with one another, as well as maintain the thematic narrative that begins with an agreement between sounds, and ends with disapproval as hinted in the direct terms “deceptive,” “evasive,” and “irregular.” The orchestra of “woodwinds” and “horns” concludes in the fifth stanza after “evasive. Irregular,” where the speaker voices their account of the “Mare Nostrum:” “and right before resolution, / I can only confirm fermata, that unknowable / trench and the chain of coda’s command.” In imaging the sea as a musical notation, the speaker relates an unspecified account: “I can only confirm fermata,” pointing to the obstruction of memory and time due to the fallacy of order. Closing on “chain of coda’s command” directs the reader’s attention to the end of the musical piece, however, the ending phrase gives no interpretation to the speaker’s missing narrative of the sonic journey itself.
In “Dirge for a Dinghy,” Karetnick once again uses music to influence the tone and theme of the poem. “Dirge” speaks to the mournful tone, whereas the ghazal form the poem appears in implies loss, separation, and perhaps even admiration for Yusra Mardini, who the poem makes reference to in the epigraph. The couplet begins in conversation between two women: “My body was less than the sum of its parts. / Her body had done more than its part.” The perfect rhyme between “part” and “parts” emphasizes the dialectic between the women as if to compare them for their intrinsic value and instrumental value. The speaker feels “less than” her whole, while the women referred to as “her,” is regarded for her action and ability, which is specified in the following couplets:
an Olympic tugboat in the slowest race
The “race” retells Mardini’s story as a refugee fleeing from Syria along with twenty people, and traveling through the sea from Lebanon to Turkey. Although the poem aims to give attention to the journey, there’s evidence that even in this “recent history” only a “part” of it is accessible. In the ninth and tenth couplet, the poem admits to its gaps:
and the rest of us witness after witness from the usual
The attention to the voyage, despite its “faulty storylines” and “breathless narrative,” is given privilege over the destination as if to solicit the reader’s attention. The poem itself doesn’t answer who is being carried across the sea, what is being carried, or even why. This may be because the poet desires to give attention to the narrative of exile, but also expects the reader to be responsible for the information received.
Jen Karetnick’s poems carry a heavy responsibility in transcribing missing narrative arcs, which hold accounts of historical, moral, and political disputes. In “Imperfect Authentic Cadence: Music Theory for the Mare Nostrum,” the sea becomes the vessel for sound, and the sound transverses across a scale of notes that hold an account of many adventures, both orderly and chaotic. In “Dirge for a Dinghy,” the body takes the form of carrier in an act of survival, and so the song is one of separation and admiration. Although the observer in both these poems holds an unspecified account, the poems still grant importance to the gap between the start of the voyage to its destination. Gaps solicit curiosity from the reader in order to keep important narratives alive. Jen Karetnick’s The Crossing Over ventures through Mediterranean lands, and focuses on recording remnants of reports, privileging the journey over the destination in order to give meaning and reason to the open gaps.