Lisa Jarnot
Ring of Fire
Cambridge, Ma: Zoland Books, 2001

Standing on the base ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent Eyeball; I am nothing; I see all . . . -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Lisa Jarnot's second book of poetry, Ring of Fire, the speaking subject dominates. But this book is more than autobiography, or what Creeley on the back calls "rites of passage." The subject is at once larger than the single ego and also much smaller, inhabiting more than one state at once, ranging over time and geography. The self is displaced, always on the verge of disappearance.

Jarnot's poems get me both in the head and in the gut. The "I" is key to the poetry's power: it's ecstatic. From the Greek for "to put out of place," the ecstatic self is driven out of itself. This is the simultaneous joy and terror of the work: From "Brooklyn Anchorage": "I became someone else . ..everything/ reached down from the sky to kill me / and now the cattails sing." The Ring of Fire is both Dante's suffering and the Johnny Cash song's self burned away by passion.

In conversation over beers, the poet Douglass Rothschild named this self a "recklessly wandering eyeball" -- referring to Emerson's "transparent eyeball" metaphor in the essay Nature -- the poet's ecstatic dissolution of self that becomes all seeing and reflection. Emerson notes that in the moment of ecstatic disappearance, "a wild delight" runs through the poet, who must retain a "spirit of infancy."

I once heard someone dismiss Jarnot's work as "prurient." It's wonderfully apt; prurient, from the Latin "to itch" means having an itching desire or curiosity, given to indulgence or lewd ideas. To approach the world in a "spirit of infancy" is to invite in the whole, with mouth, eyes, hands and legs open, to surrender the self. The poems achieve this elemental delight through their often gorgeously excessive music and repetition, and through their pairing of the sublime and ridiculous -- the "puked on van" in "The New Life" takes on the same weight of symbolism as "lavender" and "night."The juxtaposition of high and low tickles two bones at once: it's funny and smart because it undercuts Romantic symbolism with irony. It's also, well, prurient, transgressive by being dirty or slightly taboo, which is its own delight.

In the introduction to Nature, Emerson called his age "retrospective." "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" In this post-postmodern age, the instinct has been to pulverize each preceding instant in a frenzy of remaking. Jarnot's work in Ring of Fire avoids both extremes. She uses a virtuosity of simultaneous techniques, both experimental and ancient, to create a sense of giant elasticity, a poetry of insight that recalls the oldest of tunes.

--Allison Cobb