SOJOURNERS OF THE IN-BETWEEN
by Gregory Djanikian
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 90 pages
reviewed by Beth Kephart
In his new heartbreaking and affirming book of poems, his seventh, Gregory Djanikian writes past complexity toward the elemental and the binding. He unites the “beautiful and the raw,” plays no tricks, displays no tics, exploits nothing but the moment and the thought that accompanies it. He finds the reader wherever the reader is, then webs her into his space and time, a place where a hand run along the back of a cat returns “the animality of my own skin/the trees in slanting light,/ the blue sky breathing its blue/down to the greening fields.” (“What Is a Cat But a Voice Among All the Other Voices”) In Djanikian’s space and time, the end may be near, it may be hastening toward us, but it is still, as yet, a yonder.
Sojourners of the In-Between is organized into five escalating parts. It’s a little noisy in the opening pages, full of harbingers and yelling priests, a street corner mime, the clink of wine bottles, a stained tablecloth, “The world’s blips and pings, street traffic,/glass clatter, hammer clank…” (“Music Making”), the bark of a neighbor’s dog, that aforementioned cat, who also sings. The world buzzes and the poet heeds, his poems derived from hub-bub, his language caught up with the sounds.
Section 2 finds the poet this side of aggravated—privately annoyed by the poor conversationalist, a little superior to a neighbor named Grace, irritated by the stranger who sits beside him at a concert. From “And Another Thing:”
Such dislike for the woman who’s come late
to the concert making our whole row rise just
as the tenor sax hits its high E-flat and now
she’s sitting next to me and texting—my god!—
during the drummer’s lithe percussive
rhythms which are not my rhythms judging
by my heavy foot beats ….
By the time Djanikian’s narrator is, toward the end of section 2, officially unnerved, we are too, “… pacing the afternoon/like a high-wire walker/from room to room/counting the steps.” (“Loose Ends”) What is one to do with all that noise? Where is one to file the irritants?
Now something tilts. Now, in the final three sections of the collection, Djanikian turns his focus toward the things that fall away and the things that will remain, without us. The poems see beyond the irritants toward the bats from which we keep our distance, the loosestrife in the garden, the touch of a wife’s hand to the “soft lips” of a cow, the material accumulations of our lives. The poems here are clear-eyed and life-besotted, they are quieter, unafraid of (but not lethal with) uncertainty. The poet has time to think. He has time to stand. He has time to wait, but what is he waiting for? For a letter to arrive? For a cat to sing? For an answer from a person no longer with him? Djanikian’s mother imagines her own passing in one poem. Djanikian imagines his own heaven in another. There is too much of everything. There is too little. From the poem “An Uneven Dozen”:
The paradox of time, giving me too much time
and sometimes not enough at the same time.
Morning, evening. Seconds, years.
When I’m late for everything.
I’m early for everything else.
In the final glorious poems of the In-Between, it is always about time—about time and how we live it. Searingly unpretentious, the closest thing to authentic I can imagine, Djanikian’s lines provide a kind of shelter, as, with him, we watch and wait and wonder.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly thirty books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, a widely published essayist, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. A memoir in essays, Wife | Daughter | Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press in February 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.