Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Denrow’

THERMOS 2: Jennifer Denrow

Here’s another of the poems I’ve spent a lot of time with over the years, from our second issue in late 2008. Jen Denrow subsequently published this poem as the first section of her book, California, available here from Four Ways Books. She also talked to us about the book, here. — AS



Forget your life.

Okay I have.

Lay something down that is unlike you:

Sold boat, Italian song.

I’m losing my head over this:

this is what the doll said when you pulled its head
from its body;

all the girls laughed.

I’ll move to California. I should
go alone. I’ll go

with the knowledge of fake
snow. I’ll ask my father to bring me.




I liked it better
when my fingers
were people.

I should drive away from my life.

If a man comes through town on his way to California, I will go with him. I don’t care who
he is:

if his wife is pretty, fine;
if he is returning to her, fine.

A man should be going there today,

at least one man; this city
is so big.

When I’m in California I’ll go to the beach
and cry. All of the seagulls will crowd

around me and force my mouth open
with their wings. One

will bring me a fish. I won’t be able to leave them.

My fingers
aren’t people

I forgot to train them. They were over watered. They drowned.

There isn’t a steeple, no alderman discussing the loss.

That was a hand-church;

that was my folly.




My life in California will be inspiring. I’ll send postcards to people who didn’t know I was
going. I’ll even send postcards to people I haven’t talked to in years.

I’ll buy a guitar once I arrive.

I’ll audition at a local club to become the nightly entertainment.

I’ll say, I can do anything you need.

I’ll show them card tricks and how my dog can talk.

I won’t have a dog.

Everyone will laugh at me.

When it’s winter and the woman next door needs to borrow some change for laundry, I’ll
call someone and say how unhappy I am.

I shouldn’t go to California then.

No one can be alive there.

The store windows are just so the owners think people are alive.

I’ve never even wanted to go to California before.

I should leave now.




I went to wake up my husband to tell him I was leaving. He said, Why do you want to go there?

Because I have to.

You should fly then.

He won’t let me borrow his car.

My car doesn’t have AC.

I know a guy who should be driving to California this week. I check my email to see if he
has written to invite me.

He hasn’t.

The computer says the right person is out there waiting for me. It asks for my name and
age. I tell my husband to make a profile on a love match website and I’ll do the same
and we can see if we are compatible. He doesn’t want to, so instead I ask if I can
talk in his mouth andhe lets me but says it tickles.

Later when he wakes up he’ll say, What was all of that about California?

And I’ll say, Oh nothing.

And he’ll say, You’re pushing me away.

And I’ll say, Probably, but I don’t mean to.

He’ll leave for work and I’ll spend the day listening to my favorite musician sing very sad
songs that will make me want to go far away from myself.

I’ll go to California then.




When I went to the backyard,

I said to myself,

this doesn’t look like California

and nothing in my life does

and my husband says he’ll have to deal with this forever.

I want to go so bad I clench my fist
hard in the air, I push my finger into
his chin and cry: it feels like this, I say.
I need it this bad.




I realize now that I’m a woman.

I go to the store.

I buy California style pizza and beer. I drop my ID when the woman asks to see it.

No one in the store looks like they could be from California.

A baby eats some keys.

I buy a magazine with people from California in it; they are all very beautiful.

I come out of the store and the sky

is filled with many white clouds

that could be stand-ins for California clouds.

I don’t even have a tan.

I know this is the only time I’ll leave the house today.




When I get home my husband sees me balling my fist and he scowls at me. On the radio is
a story about a woman who walked from California to New York. She was 80. She says we
don’t have a democracy.

I need to arrive at something.

Now there is a story about a thirteen year old boy who is dying. He tells the reporter not to
sit around being miserable. He gasps for breath.

He won’t ever be able to dive into a pool.

He is a beautiful child.

He is dead.

He told the reporter to always let someone in line in front of him.

The next story is about the Unabomber’s brother. His mother kissed his cheek when he
told her about her son.

She said, I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through.

If I was in California, I wouldn’t be listening to the radio.

I write California in the air.

Another story comes on about a man who built a cork boat.

I bring up images of California on the computer; there are three million to choose from. I
set one as the screen saver. It’s a yellow map of the southern part.




Instead of going to California I make my husband a ham and cheese sandwich to take to
work. He doesn’t like the way I place the cheese on the bread.
When he leaves for work I sit in a quiet house.

I told him I couldn’t have this life.

This wasn’t me living here.

I was living in California.

He said cruel things that he knew would scare me.

He brought the ring from the cabinet and tried to put it on my finger.

I said no.

I said I can’t be married right now.

He said this happens every year.

He may be right.




My mother took me to California once when I was very small. We visited Disneyland. I
wore Mickey Mouse ears and had my hair in braids.

I wasn’t afraid. No one talked to me.

On the plane ride back the stewardess offered us soft drinks.




Once on a plane a foreign woman offered me fruit.

I declined.

This was when I was older, after I’d already been to California.

When I was there, I wrote my name in the sand. I wrote my name and drew a heart and
then I wrote my mother’s name. This was when she loved my father so I wrote his
name too.

We were visiting my uncle.

I see a picture of him holding me and laughing.

He’s dead now, so I can’t visit him there anymore.

He had diabetes and drank a lot and died alone in a motel room.

My aunt said she received a phone call from him after he was dead. He groaned a little and
said unintelligible things.

He lived in California because he was in the Navy and had to live there.

If I lived in California, I would buy an iguana. I would meet a lot of nice people; they
would make kind remarks about my decision to follow my intuition.




Leonard Cohen went to California.

He went there to become holy.

I could become holy in California. I could live in a small room with only a little light.

My husband says I can rent a car if I really need to go. I tell him it’s not the same. Why
doesn’t he ever feel something like this? He just doesn’t.

He lives in this house completely.

This house could be the problem.

I suspect that I’m the problem.

He says I want to abandon our animals; he says I’m crazy.

I don’t feel like I’m crazy,

I just feel like someone who wants to go to California.




I just remembered that I do know someone who lives in California. He’s a man I worked
with several years ago. He moved there to make movies.

We made a movie once. It was a horror film that took place in a movie theatre. We worked
in a movie theatre.

Our dialogue was poor.

I finally gave up.

I fell in love with the manager. We had sex. We laughed the whole time.

This was the first time I had sex. I was twenty two. He didn’t love me.

Later, I realized that I never really loved him either, I just pretended to so I could be sad
about something. He was very charming and said funny things. He never took his hat off
because he was going bald and didn’t want anyone to know. His girlfriend was very sweet.
He made all of the girls love him. Even the prettiest Mormon girl loved him. I started
taking a lot of drugs so it didn’t matter that she loved him. I saw them kiss and felt

He is the kind of man who could live in California.

He had a very fast car and a lot of friends.

If he lived in California, he could be a politician.




On the television I saw the President in a fast food restaurant in California. He was buying
a cup of coffee for a reporter. Someone went to get the coffee, a recently new citizen, and
when he came back and tried to hand it to the reporter, the President pushed his arm away
and said, I’ll handle that. He took the coffee from the new citizen and handed it to the
reporter himself, and then he took some folded ones from his pocket and handed them
back to the citizen.

He was trying to be real.

He was trying to look like the kind of person who wanted to be in California.




If California didn’t exist, I’d still want to go there.

As I look around the house I think of things I’ll take with me.

I pack my bags.

Before my husband left he asked if I would be here when he got home.


But you’ll be gone someday.


Will you at least leave a note?


The last man I left got a note. I didn’t leave him for California but for my husband.

He was an angry man. The note I left was filled with a lot of statements about aggression
and happiness.

After I left, he went to California for an art show. He married his ex girlfriend. I knew he loved her the whole time he loved me. I didn’t talk about her. I let him have her in silence.




My cousin calls. She tells me there are only 363 days until the new Harry Potter movie
comes out. My aunt gets on the phone. I tell her about California. She tells me about a
man who lost his leg but can still feel two toes fall asleep.

The reality is that…

My aunt talks like this.

She says his leg is not really gone. That’s not reality. She tells me how Christ replaced
someone’s ear.

I hear her daughter in the background asking to borrow some pot. Here, but make it last, I
don’t want to go back over there in two days
, my aunt says. Back over there is to the house of the
man with one leg and phantom toes.

When I was a teenager my mom would put extra pot on a cheese plate that had a mouse
cover. She would say, it’s there in case you need to relax. I didn’t need to relax but I still took
the pot. When my friends came over I said we had to smoke in the garage. This was a lie.
I don’t know why I said this.

My aunt says California is a little far, but she could pick me up in a few days and we could
go to Chicago.

I am suddenly terrified to leave the house, but I tell her that will be fine.

She probably won’t come. She usually forgets to do things like that, so I don’t worry too much.

We talk for two hours. She tells me how frustrating it is to get laid off three times in four years.

She applies for nine jobs a week.

No one calls her back.

She says perhaps if she was in California it would be easier to get a job.




By this time it’s apparent that I’m not leaving for California today.

The street light comes through the window like a forgotten angel.

I should go to sleep.

I’ll leave tomorrow.

If I’m lucky, I’ll meet someone who’s going there.


First Books: A Conversation with Jen Denrow

A number of THERMOS contributors have recently published first books. Stay tuned for conversations with them here. First up is Jennifer Denrow, who appeared in our second issue and whose book California was published by Four Way Books in 2010.

TH: How has having a first book out changed how you think about your writing?

JD: I’m trying to decide if it has. Has it? I don’t think it has.

TH: How do you see your work in what’s happening now in poetry? Are there other first books out there that you feel like yours is friends with?

JD: I’m always trying to think about that: what’s happening now. Sometimes I will write down the first or last sentences in a book of poems and then do that to other books of poems and compare them. There’s something in the syntax of some of the poetry now—a directness that the language, filled with indefinite references, counteracts with.  Maybe it’s an intelligible indefiniteness—I feel like the poems are disclosing everything through the syntax, while at the same time creating, through diction, an environment where nothing can be known.

I remember in college—on the blackboard was drawn a tree and the word tree was drawn next to it to indicate the relationship between the signified and signifier. There was something in that equation that was important to how the world was operational. The way information was traded and what depended upon the clearest trade route possible. It feels different now, for me. Now that poetry’s direction/location/external material to which its pronouns (indefinite and demonstrative, with which I have a nice obsessive relationship) refer to is less clear, it doesn’t feel as vital—is it because some of the necessity of this system of referents is disappearing (perhaps due to living in a world that is largely comprised of virtual material—where the referent system is based on a binary model and yet, at the same time, is also over-meaninged)? Does this make sense?

I will give you some examples—here are a few of the books I have near me right now. Heather Christle opens her new book, The Trees The Trees, with a poem that has as its first phrase:

here is the hand      here is the hand

She goes on to give more information regarding the word here, but the initial understanding of this phrase is that the here is dangling in space, on paper, I guess, with no external referent. Within this construction, there is a sense of completion. For me, there is—there’s something unifying in presenting a word that necessitates additional information and, at least momentarily, withholding that information. This is the kind of thing that feels prevalent—what does it mean for us, for how we’re experiencing the world right now? Language, being used in this way, seems to indicate some kind of philosophical position, or for me it does. Is it that what is being said doesn’t need something physical, in the world, to which it corresponds? Have we moved beyond a system where that’s necessary? Maybe it’s the idea of indefiniteness itself. The way this takes shape in pronoun form is through words such as everyone, everything, none, etc, which feel like important words right now. Or maybe they’re just important to me—I can’t tell. I keep making the world to be this and maybe it’s just not.

Another book that’s here is Chris Martin’s Becoming Weather. The first line is:

Not that what
is is

which is given more context soon after, but the initial moment of the text resides in this same kind of indefiniteness, this uncertainty that feels like part of a collective experience. It’s not that what is is, but is something else entirely. Again, nothing feels like itself. It’s so hard to go through the world where something is so many things—it is at once nothing and everything (a collection of the experiences we’ve had up until the moment we arrive in front of it). There is something desperately associative about the way we come into contact with the world and what’s in it.

I have the new of issue of Skein here. Seth Landman has two incredible poems inside. One of them, “The Woods,” begins:

This one is about a soul.

The first word, this, refers to what? The poem would be my estimate, but perhaps not. There isn’t additional information given to ensure that, not immediately, anyway. So we have our this. It’s here again. It means so much because the way it has historically operated is not how it operates here. There isn’t a man standing in front of you saying This Way, and directing you toward an exit. It’s a referenceless this, one that seems to come out of some common understanding of the world. Space and time are occupied in different ways, what is close, isn’t; what is, isn’t.

In terms of how this obsesses me in my own work, I guess the first poem in California can be considered. Or, it may be easier with something smaller: “Things Reappear”:

Because the chair in front of you isn’t a base you don’t touch it when you pass by. The other players foul you for this.

See. What is, isn’t, but it also still is. It’s so hard to tell anything now. Everything means. And it means a lot. Also it is empty. The chair is the base that needs to be tagged because the players are there and they say it is, but also it’s not because it’s just a person standing in her living room. Basically this is what keeps happening through the book. Over and over again. Really in everything I write. I’m always trying to get inside the center of what something is, but I also need it to always have the possibility of being everything, or at least something else. It would be claustrophobic if I did understand something as itself. So I keep doing this thing where I need to arrive at a certainty through my correspondence with what is external to me, but I also need it to never be one thing. Is this about God, I wonder?

TH: How does what you’re writing now differ from what’s in California?

JD: Shoot. I don’t know if it does. It does. But it still keeps doing the same thing. Everything I write feels very overwhelmed, so I’ve been trying to settle that down in between thinking it and writing it—which for me is difficult because those two things don’t have a lot of time between them. I’m trying to make short lines. I don’t think I’m doing a good job. I want to. Short lines seem to, even if the content is overwhelmed, control some of the emotion that long lines can’t.

TH: What poems or lines from your book feel the “youngest” to you, like they most show your development (though you remain fond of them)? Why/how?

JD: The entire thing feels young to me. Most of the stuff inside of it is six years old, so I was a different me when I made it.  One time I got a letter from an old me. It was in February and that me was advising the February me to take a nap and then go for a walk, which is exactly what I was trying to decide between at the time. And I didn’t remember sending it, so it really was like a whole different person.  I guess the letters between Edgar and Charlie feel young. I was taking a class with Kerri Webster on the epic and our job was to write something long, and I loved Edgar and Charlie so much and wanted them to still be around, so I made that. I’m not sure I went into them enough—maybe now I would attempt their relationship in a more serious way. Oh, you know what—I saw Charlie. It was in February, too. He lives in this glass case at the Smithsonian now.