Some Notes On Charlie Jensen’s The First Risk

I’ve read some great new books in recent weeks and wanted to highlight some of them.  This post is dedicated to Charlie Jenson’s first full-length collection, The First Risk:

Front Cover of The First Risk

The first thing that struck me about the collection is how unified it is, both within each sequence and across each sequence.  The thematic arcs have a lot to do with this, the most obvious perhaps grief, being the survivor, the one left behind after a loved one dies.  We get an exploration of grief from four very different and compelling angles: “Safe,” the first section, deploys a triple narrative technique weaving the story and details of Matthew Shephard’s murder in with the speaker’s own personal coming-of-age story (the “what-was-I-doing-when…” that October and since) and then placing those two narratives next to Luca Cambiaso’s paintings of Venus and Adonis. The second section “City of the Sad Divas” explores one of my all-time favorite films, Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother where the lost figure is that of Esteban, Manuela’s son. The third section “The Double Blind: A Critical Text” explores yet another of my favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where the lost figure is Madeleine Elster. And the fourth section presents Charlie’s chapbook The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon, where the lost figure is Maribel.  

I feel like I could write a long essay if I let myself, analyizing each section of the book, but I’ll simply start at the beginning in an effort to convince you to go buy it and read it for yourself.  The book opens with the poem “It Was October” which I remember reading and loving in OCHO #22, and you’ll find the intertwined narrative at play, the speaker entering a bar and taken home by a stranger with the refrain “I was love” building to the undercut: “What did I know of love that year, / shuddering in my nervous skin.  Miles away, the boy was lashed to a fence and shivering.”  Speaker is connected to Matthew through the sonic echo of “shuddering” and “shivering,” though for the speaker his shuddering is perhaps more the little death of sexual experience.  The parallel reminds many of us that Matthew could have been me had a trip to a bar and one night stand with a stranger gone differently. And in those moments the speaker was love, thought he knew love, he returns to that question in the final couplet: when faced with the knowledge and details of Matthew’s death “What did I know of love then” and then in a masterful line break that revises that question and admission to a statement that shows what the speaker has learned: “but that it wasn’t enough.”

That poem is then followed by the first Venus and Adonis poem “Venus Arrives at the Body of Adonis,” offering a counterpoint that asks us to hold the Matthew Shepherd image while we flicker into this detail from a painting, of a lover discovering her beloved’s broken body.  The horror of Matthew’s death hits us all the more on the next page when we switch back to his story in the poem “In Laramie” which opens “The body is / taken from the roadside strap.”  And the speaker, much like Venus attends to Adonis in the previous poem “She leans near his lips / to capture his last breath–“, takes Matthew’s body “I lay him / across my lap. // I stroke / his blook-soaked hair with my cold hand.”

I could clearly go on analyzing the rest of this sequence (definitely spend time with “I Am the Boy Who Is Tied Down” and “Safe”) but just want to say that the alternating between the two tales helps break up the difficult and harrowing details of Matthew’s death while casting a hook into history and myth, the poem almost an act of setting him among the constellations the way characters and heroes of old were when they passed into those magical transformations.  Unfortunately here the immortal transformation will haunt us like Venus is haunted, for even as she is forced to face that love “makes a mortal of her” we are forced to face in those final lines of “Safe” that “Now the event is inside us, / rank and sour.  We carry its sadness like a gene.” A gene to be passed down through future generations, which is in itself a kind of immortality, a grief that will live on as in myth.

I’d love to go through the other sequences (and perhaps I will in a later post) but for now I just want to say The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon excited me even more when read in the context of the three preceding sequences. The imagination at play in The Strange Case… still wows me, from the made-up (and very convincing!) source material to its very mode: a fragmented narrative at once poetic and investigative in its shredded and burnt documents, diary entries and interview transcripts.  My own fantasies about turning into “non-corporeal energy” aside, I can’t imagine someone not recalling their own lost loves when they read Edward’s longing for the lost Maribel; those intense lyric moments in his diary entries are deftly juxtaposed with the more reportorial narrator whose voice begins each of the four sections, telling and framing the tale.

I leave you with some of my favorite lines from …Maribel Dixon:

“…there is sound and the corona of sound, the fire
that seals around it and glows.”

“To have love and lose it is our only failure; to
have love and destroy it, our only crime.”

You should also check out Jeffrey Berg’s great interview with Charlie too.  Happy reading!

2 Replies to “Some Notes On Charlie Jensen’s The First Risk”

  1. I’m planning a seminar on elegy–would this be an appropriate book to use? I’m going to order it, regardless, but wondered if you think it would fit in a class with 20th and 21st-century elegiac poetry. Thanks for your answer.

    1. Yes, I think it would be appropriate. One of the connecting threads throughout the book is the lament for the dead, for the beloved who is no longer with us, and I think Charlie does some fresh things with the elegiac mode.

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