Violence, Stillness, and Language in Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason
review by Jen Town
I want to convey to you my love for Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason and the best way I can think to do that is to share, word for word, her poem “The Belt,” about a cow giving birth:
After she heaved all day against the boards
of her enclosure, after she panted so long
that foam bloomed on her lips, after the sun
sharpened like fumes over the fields and shadows
began to climb out of the earth,
he unbuckled his belt and fed the leather
between her teeth, the big tongue soft
as a sea creature, saying Here
Bite down, girl—
I come to give you something, and the gift
is your own strength, returned to you
—and she mouthed hard
and the calf came out like jelly, inert
and cooling on the trampled straw.
It was dusk. High above us
swallows found their holes in the tower of hay.
A few minutes later, she stood.
Drank a little water from the trough.
His belt where she'd chewed it
was like chewed bread. And how
did you imagine mercy would look?
“And how / did you imagine mercy would look?” That ending sent a jolt through me. And how did I imagine mercy would look? The implicit answer is not like this. I thought of Robert Frost’s line, “the best way out is always through,” which I always misremember as “only.” The only way out is through. In my human way, I hoped mercy would end suffering, but here, mercy helps you to bear it.
The Dream of Reason is divided into three sections, with the middle section consisting of sixteen poems addressing the travails of farm animals, particularly pigs: “A person who cares about a pig is a rare thing.” A pig, like a human, has eyelashes. A pig may mourn other pigs, a pig fears the machinery of what we humans vaguely call “the processing system.” Here we note how the language of “livestock handling” serves to dehumanize a being that thinks and feels, like us.
To be a body in this world is to to be subject to and capable of violence. For humans, desire is a kind of violence, and in the seemingly humanless “New World,” a world without feedlots and slaughterhouses, “there is nothing to be longed for.” This lack of longing is a reprieve from suffering.
As a counterpoint to the violence of the body, stillness drifts in, often as the delicate personification of day and night, of elements of the landscape. In “The Gesture of Turning a Mask Around,” “It’s dawn; the dark unjoins / and drifts off into light” and from “Reprieve,” “the sun builds a slow house inside my house.”
In “The Gesture of Turning a Mask Around,” we learn that “the opposite of language is not silence / but space.” I had to think about this line for a while. I had to consider it, tumble it over and over like a stone in my mind and then—that jolt—I realized silence requires a listener. Silence needs us, the witness. Space doesn’t need us. So much of this—stillness, space, the day, the night, landscape, the animals—doesn’t need us.
And yet here we are, with our desires and cruelties—and our ability to name them. In “Sword-Swallower,” there is stillness and then there is the body, that “peculiar house of nerves,” and after language, “now the world is buried in me, to the hilt” (at first I misread “world” as “word”). Language confers onto the body the ability to name desire: “I know exactly / what I want.” In Jenny George’s luminous first collection, language is how we shape and are shaped by the world, for better or worse.
Jen Town's poetry has appeared in Mid-American Review, Cimarron Review, Epoch, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, and others. She earned her MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University in 2008. Her first book, The Light of What Comes After, won the 2017 May Sarton Poetry Prize from Bauhan Publishing. Jen lives with her wife, Carrie, in Columbus, Ohio. You can find her online at jentown.com.