Pelvis with Distance by Jessica Jacobs, 136 pages, White Pine Press, paperback, 2015, $16.00
Review by Laurel Nakanishi
I began reading Jessica Jacob’s debut poetry collection, Pelvis with Distance, in a small cabin in the Colorado Rockies. When I packed the book, I had no idea that Jacobs wrote much of it while also living in a cabin in New Mexico. Here, in the pages, was the distilled blue of the high desert and here, too, the clarity of image that intense sunlight brings. Pelvis with Distance is an ambitious and nuanced collection, and although I tend to dawdle my way through most poetry books, I read this one greedily over three short days in my high mountain cabin.
Jacobs spent far longer in her cabin, which was not hers, in fact, but an outbuilding of Georgia O’Keefe’s isolated home in Abiquiu, NM. Pelvis with Distance is, as the subtitle indicates, “A Biography-in-Poems” – each page a prism that refracts from fragments of letters, interviews, statements and scholarship on Georgia O’Keefe, along with the poet’s own imagination. Being a lover of the narrative as well as the lyric, I enjoyed how the poems link together to create a cohesive whole. This book spans O’Keefe’s life: following her through years as a young artist in art school, through her long relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, into her travels in the west, and finally her last days. Both personal and aesthetic, these poems look into O’Keefe’s life as an artist and a woman.
While biography is the overarching goal of this collection, it also holds true to its second subtitle: “Self-Portrait by Proxy.” Scattered throughout the book are poems about the writer herself (or, at least, her proxy on the page). We see the speaker jog through arroyos, make meals, and encounter humming birds, sunsets and the ringing of her own footfalls. What I found most striking about these personal poems is Jacobs’s meditation on solitude – both O’Keefe’s solitude and her own. Jacobs captures this emotion beautifully in a poem early in the book, “In the Canyon II (Fear/Breaking).” Of these first experiences with complete isolation, Jacobs writes: “I inhale. I try. But breath / is a strangler fig, a ribcage tourniquet. My / hands and feet grow honeycombed, carbonate.” Yet as the writer’s time at the cabin expands, she settles into the landscape, coming to a sort of peace with solitude. Late in the book, Jacobs writes, “Georgia, I came here thinking you’d teach me how to be alone. That / if I uncovered your secret, I could reverse-engineer a life by what / I’d learned. / But now I suspect you could leave your / known world behind because you knew you were loved – however / imperfectly.” And this is indeed the conclusion of sorts that Jacobs seems to come to: the value of solitude and the simultaneous necessity of communion with other people.
Over the course of this collection, I was impressed with Jacobs’s poetic range: how she moved from more prose-like lines, like the one quote above, to highly lyrical descriptions. I found myself making a list of the words Jacobs creatively misuses and invents: “scumble, minnowing, horse-shadowed, buggy-cut, prowed…” because it seemed that these new words make room for new imagistic possibilities. In a biography-in-poems about such a vivid, diverse and talented painter as Georgia O’Keefe, there is a lot of pressure to do justice not only to her work, but also the landscape of northern New Mexico; Jacobs does just that – brilliantly painting with words bouquets of color, texture and desert light.