Poetry Life & Times
Friday, November 30, 2007 12:06:00 PM
by Janet P Caldwell
|Interview and book review by Ian Thorpe.
The book review...
Poetry Life and Times~ISSN 1752-3265 (Online~November 2007)
5 degrees to separation by Janet Caldwell
reviewed for Poetry Life and Times by Ian Thorpe
All Rights Reserved
All Rights Reserved
A review by
How does one review a book like 5 Degrees to Separation? It is like no other book of poetry that I have come across. From the first poems in the collection, Seasons and Alive, it is clear we are in for something quite special. Seasons takes us through the year’ cycle in just twelve lines. The poem has a very pagan feel, decline, darkness, renewal, triumph but Janet is not paganistic in her spirituality and it will be some time before the reader can revisit this poem and read it in the correct context.
Alive is another celebration of life, apparently a charming little rhyme but again, later we will, when rereading , see a much darker side. Soon we are into love, fantasy... A few pages later the pleasantries are over.
There are many modern poets whose work is based in self analysis, the sitting around poets as my mentor Jeff Nuttall called them, usually their work is constructed around navel gazing; the poet’s quest for understanding of their inner self or struggle with their inner demons. None of it prepares us any better for what we are about to read than the florid verse of the eighteenth century romantics would. To anticipate the emotional impact of Janet’s verse one would have had to be beaten up by a couple of Mafia thugs. No inner demons here, this is very much wrestling with outer demons. The change of pace begins on page 5 with a threatening poem, 5 Minutes Long, By page twelve the first smack in the guts, laden with anger, resentment and a sense of injustice, is delivered.
That describes what the reader new to Janet’s work will experience. From the critic’s point of view the book, with its sudden mood swings, its poems of distant and recent memory, the violence, blood red passion, anger, warmth, madness and wisdom starts to unfold like an art house movie, exploring in jump cuts the poet’s personality and formative experiences.
Janet P. Caldwell was born in Texas and has lived all her life in America’s Bible Belt, an area of extremes that creates many social pressures unfamiliar to Europeans. This, alongside a traumatic childhood due to a disastrous combination of circumstances moulded, in my view, a person whose actions have often been steered by her inability to reconcile herself to her true , iconoclastic nature because of influence exerted by external pressures to live up to the unrealistic expectations of the society she grew up in.
Once again the terrifying truth of St. Ignatius Loyola’s assertion “Give me the child to the age of seven and I will give you the person for life,” is demonstrated.
Many of Janet’s poems deal with struggles to cope with mental illness (manic depression), and addiction and it is when writing on such topics that her work grabs its readers by the throat, slams us into walls, punches, kicks and headbutts us before leaving the crumpled heap of emotions to which we are reduced, strewn on the unswept floor. It is not that she is a violent person, I know her and she’s a sweetie, but her skill as a writer and the very direct style (no wordsmithery here) draw us into the narrative. But though the poems are very direct in the way they approach subject matter there is also considerable skill and originality in the use of language. Who else could invest the phrase “my haemorrhaging symphony” with beauty (Voices, P94).
Many of the most memorable poems deal with abuse suffered throughout childhood at the hands of a sadistic and depraved stepfather. Janet tells in her interview with Poetry Life and Times (November 2007) of the circumstances leading to a family of four young children falling into the hands of a man who delighted so in his role as omnipotent patriarch and whose personal version of Bible Belt Christianity did not constrain him from inflicting physical abuse on his four young wards and sexual abuse on the pretty, blonde girl – child from a very early age. Janet is a Christian and I don’t want to upset her, but I think we must question the validity of a book proclaimed as the source of all moral values that lays a duty on children to respect and honour parents but does not mention the duty of parents to respect and honour their children.
It is particularly poignant when in First Haircut (p 128) we are reminded that the siblings were required to call their tormentor “Daddy” before images of a savage beating inflicted because Daddy had a problem with a tangle in Janet’s long blonde hair while combing it are rammed into our mental television receiver. As father of a daughter I know how proud of their hair little girls little girls can be. The first climax of First Haircut comes when Daddy chops off the cherished hair “with a butcher knife.” Throughout the ordeal the terrified little girl takes refuge in counting to five and checking her fingers over and over again, a habit in which she once more takes refuge when in the second stage of the narrative, that evening Daddy, coming down from the earlier high and craving more, ascends the stairs to her room.
Her tresses had been one of the few things
she liked about herself, The hair
once wrapped around her like
The habit of counting to five is fully explained in the poem from which the book takes its title, Five Degrees to Separation which describes how the victim learned to separate her psyche or soul from the physical violation and degradation of her body:
In the morning
when I was defiled,
five screams a minute...
She tells us, going on to describe how she is safe in numbers when “I separate from myself.”
My rabbit hole with
back doors aplenty,
five senses all shut down...
Progressing through the book we meet Daddy again and again as we are introduced to more of his cruel games, his rages and his self – righteousness.
It would be wrong to assume that the book is so bleak throughout. One of the things that appealed to me about Janet’s writing when I first encountered her is its very visual quality which concurs with my own view that poems should be a playlet for one actor, a short, dramatic monologue performed on an empty stage, in which the narrative voice uses pitch, pace and volume to create from the lines a scene and causes the characters to materialise out of nuanced phrases and variation of tone and rhythm. In poems such as Ancient Lover ( p 18) Deja Vu Tide (p 3) and Deja Vu Man (p 28) we are shown a fantasy lover, known from a past incarnation, who appears from the sea. The paganistic nature of this fantasy has always made me suspect that Janet’s Christian faith is more a result of conditioning than an innate affinity with the gospels and there are plenty more hints that I may be onto something there.
Another recurring theme is that of imprisonment and escape. One does not need a PhD in Psychology to work out the origins of such images, if fact it is entirely possible that people who have a PhD in Psychology would have most difficulty in working it out, given their ability to be blind to the obvious. In childhood we are all potential prisoners of dependency but to most of us the early years are not a prison, but thanks to loving parents a wonderland of fun and learning as, guarded and guided by family, we gather the experiences that will mould our adult self. Those who are prisoners of dependency in childhood are also usually prisoners of fear and of guilt because the abusing adult has little difficulty in convincing the terrified child that they are to blame for all that happens. And so the child asks “why me, why can’t I be like everybody else?” The only available answer is the one planted by the abuser, “because you are bad, because God does not love you, because you are so evil you make me do the things I do.” So the prisoner of dependency and fear becomes the prisoner of guilt and self loathing.
Life became a roller-coaster ride for Janet, an image deployed with great effectiveness in Closed Circuit, a description of a relationship being destroyed by the partner’s inability to cope with the constant up and down and the poet pleading, yearning for understanding but resigned to the knowledge that her relationships are destined to end this way.
Stylistically the obvious influence of Sylvia Plath is present throughout, but that is not to say the styles are similar. Plath was a writer of her times, an era when society was gentler and life moved more slowly. Janet Caldwell is a writer of the millennium cusp when economic liberalism has usurped the social liberalism of Sylvia Plath’s lifetime and crushed the hippie philosophies of the 1960’s social revolution. We are all much more alone now, and much more defined by what we have rather than what we are. The poems in 5 Degrees to Separation reflect this. Most readers would regard them as modern, free verse with irregular line structure. Stream of consciousness writing in fact.
Many of the verses do have a stream of consciousness feel about them but something else too, something deeper. This is poetry that comes from the gut, not the brain, stream of sub-consciousness perhaps? Because they are instinctively written by an instinctive writer they are not as crafted poems are, do not consist of words woven into florid patterns. No A,B,A,B or A,B,B,A rhyming here, though there are rhymes, surprising, irregular, sometimes so stretchingly far apart as to feel accidental, even so they create the tensions that bind these poems together.
5 Degrees to Separation then is a difficult but rewarding read from a great but unrecognised talent. Last year I read and made a note of a letter in the literary section of my favourite newspaper in which the writer bemoaned the state of poetry, the unadventurous attitudes that pervade the literary publishing world and the contrived and self conscious offerings of established poets (not a world away from my own views on this topic.) The writer whose name was Cat Gander, a literature post – grad at London University (isn’t the internet brilliant) suggested what poetry needs is a superstar.
I suggest we have one in Janet, a blonde bombshell, intelligent, good looking, sexy, with a compelling back story and enough individuality to shake the literary establishment to its roots. Is there anybody out there brave enough to take her on and promote her career?
5 degrees to separation is out of print at the moment by republication through Lulu.com is planned in 2008 and most of the poems will be available online once the Greenteeth Labyrinth opens which will be before the end of 2007. Some copies of the book are still available from Poetry Life and Times.
Ian Thorpe`All Rights Reserved 2007
Poetry Life & Times