Jena Osman's The Character

by Catherine Kaspar


Jena Osman, The Character
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. 108 pp. $15.00)

Jena Osman’s book, The Character gives us one encouraging answer to the question, "Is there poetry after L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry?" An impressive book, The Character was the winner of the 1998 Barnard New Women Poets Prize. In recent years, this prize has published increasingly fascinating first books which emphasize intelligent innovations in poetry.

The Character, among other things, is an exploration of aesthetic terminology, genre constructions, categories, limitations and philosophical systems. It examines the nature of "character" seen through different players, those who deem that language become "detached/attached" and those who "promote transparency of emotion." Osman asks (through the voice of one of her characters?) "might a sort of passivity/agitate action?" while herself playing "the author of himself's complication". Author can be instigator here, actor, author and designer of theater. This active text is unafraid of boundaries and questions all kinds of limitations: "Routine is a mechanism of locks/as caused by metal" and "The/lights are gold as is the liquid/inside the vial" ("One: In the fields"). Containers or "Figural Cabinets" are analyzed for their contents: "he was the heart of the machine/and believed in glass to enclose the inner working/and to render him 'noiseless'" and "see hear marvel/in accordance with a space closed in" ("Upbringing"). Poetic language embraces scientific: "tines/as/fingers/in the play that exhibits them/as articles up for auction/or are they simply bones/a small set of vertebrae around my wrist/caught up in representing something finer/shinier". The inner mechanisms generate their forms, are their forms: "a biological sphere connected to a radius/portrayed by a particular motion."

Some of the most interesting examinations look at the outcome of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry become language as science. "From The Periodic Table As Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist" is an exciting, interactive poem of charts, tables, and scientific and literary terminology; it is an alchemical wonder:

Isomorphs for Iodine

once a violet form in chloroform
a man steps into geometry
dissolves readily as medicine
did you see the math
of his nature?

The periodic table heats language to its boiling point; transforms the elemental into poetry. Magnesium, Calcium, Barium, Radium are part of a chemical process of "bodies," "their shadows," our "partial knowledge," our "sight." Osman writes: "Hieroglyphs relative to periodic elements, relative to caricature." If postmodernism reduces language to signs, Osman shows us a navigational system which revels in those signs. Like The Character, these poems turn on questions of eye sight, on Heisenbergian principles, on Gloucester’s blind truths, and a fascination with the process of experimentation. Confident in voice(s), it is a visual exploration of textual conventions, of sign and forms in the arena of play.

Invoking notions of theater, both Shakespearean and that of Satie, the architecture of H.H. Richardson, Wilde's Dorian Gray and other textual "authorities," this book queries methods of definition, hypothesis and observation. Osman's poems embrace modulation, change, the blurred limits of our knowledge. They "assess how it is put together," challenge "intended/impressions," the "logic behind their construction" and as Lyn Hejinian writes in her illuminating introduction, investigate "the power of invention." The poems themselves are in the act of deconstructing and reconstructing, working with lyric, prose, found texts, charts, footnotes and a sense of page as field of experiment.

Several poems in this collection investigate slippage: those dubious constructions of "authority" and memory: the OED definition whose term is mistaken: "'The OED says that geography is the autobiography of the earth. Or/ was it geology?'" and those things become "unintelligible": "And yet it is his unintelligibility that prevents him from finally being discarded" Osman writes. Finally, The Character argues for experimentation as action, as life itself. Questioning is both the method and the form; conscious text the only living text:

He does not account for a time where a man is forced to be dead text and the others remain not so. He does not imagine a time where grace is the stance of the beaten. The relation between action and life depends on this. ("Dead Text")

BIO: Catherine Kasper is presently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Letters & Commentary, Conjunctions, The Colorado Review, Many Mountains Moving, The Metropolitan Review, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, The Ohio Review, Private Arts, Quarter After Eight, Sniper Logic, Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and in other journals.


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