This week’s New York Times Magazine poem, selected by Rita Dove, is “One-Way Gate” by Jenny George. I immediately liked the poem, but I cheered even more when I read the brief bio stating that “Jenny George is a poet whose debut collection, The Dream of Reason, was published last year by Copper Canyon Press.”
“Debut” and “Copper Canyon Press” in the same sentence? Very, meet impressive! That’s a top-of-the-line poetry publisher, so breaking through is worthy of all available kudos (“All kudos on deck!” as was once said).
Now back to the poem. As it is, like us, set in January (take a look out your window if you need any reminders), and as it features lines where the speaker looks one way while the cattle look another, one can’t help but think of Janus, the Roman god famous for being two-faced.
Sounds bad, but is he any different from the rest of us, looking both to the past and to the future, regretting on the one hand and hoping on the other? Just don’t tell the Buddhists with their “PRESENT” pennants, will you?
Reading this poem, one can see why Jenny George might catch an editor’s eye. For one, her topic is unique. For another, she has an interesting facility with words and the underlying thoughts that marry them.
For a taste, let’s read “One-Way Gate” together and then run back through the gate because, unlike the cattle, we can.
by Jenny George
I was moving the herd from the lower pasture
to the loading pen up by the road.
It was cold and their mouths steamed like torn bread.
The gate swung on its wheel, knocking at the herd
as they pushed through. They stomped
and pocked the freezing mud with their hooves.
This was January. I faced backward into the hard year.
The herd faced forward as the herd always does,
muscling through the lit pane of winter air.
It could have been any gate, any moment when things go
one way and not the other — an act of tenderness
or a small, cruel thing done with a pocketknife.
A child being born. Or the way we move
from sleeping to dreams, as a river flows uneasy under ice.
Of course, nothing can ever be returned to exactly.
In the pen the herd nosed the fence and I forked them hay.
A few dry snowflakes swirled the air. The truck would be there
in an hour. Hey, good girl. Go on. Get on, girl.
In S1, I just love the simile, “It was cold and their mouths steamed like torn bread.” It’s one of those “stops-me” similes. What the…? Torn bread? But wait, I kind of get it. There’s slant rhyme and there’s “slant simile” (and if there wasn’t, I just made it up, so now there is.)
Torn white bread! Maybe circa 19 Wonder-Bread-Three. Like steam “tearing loose” from the mouth in the winter air. Get it?
Then, at the end of the stanza, the herd is seen “muscling through the lit pane of winter air.” Not as high on the Wowzer Scale, but still very nice indeed.
S3, which follows the middle stanza’s more philosophical turn, brings us back to concrete details. It’s one of those deadpan, “life is just so banal, but…” finishes. Nothing spectacular or catchy, instead going for effect through the sheer simplicity of moving dumb beasts that are juxtaposed to a one-way gate of fate. These poor beasts don’t know the quarter of it (or should I say, the “quarter pound with cheese” of it?).
All that banal stuff only heightens the impact of those parting words: “Hey, good girl. Go on. Get on, girl.” Alas, the time to “get on” comes for all of us, eventually.
Our truck will be waiting someday. As will a market in the sky….