READING TO THE WREN: Collected & New Poems by the late poet Jane Mead, in chronological order (as the collection guides us), startles expectation. With some exceptions, a reader opening a volume of “collected” poems (which often reflect a life’s work) experiences the arc of what is termed “development of a voice.” Early work may show flashes of a mature style, like lightning illuminating a landscape.
But Jane Mead’s voice seems as self-certain and as fully realized in her earliest poems (included here from her chapbook, A Truck Marked Flammable) as in the books that follow: pitch-perfect arias that do not “ascend” in scale so much as flow forward in a rising and falling (yet steady) stream of consciousness. We hear Jane Mead’s ongoing address to the self and the world as it is meant to be heard from the very beginning, as an orchestration of the thinking rhythms of a polymathic imagination.
What’s called “music” is a happy conscription of the lyric, aligning language with versions of harmony. (Think Hopkins’s “inscape” syllabic rocketing or Michael Harper’s smooth gravitas in downbeat poetic jazz.)
Jane Mead’s music flows (and sometimes slides down a facing page) seemingly without deliberation, though the tempo and sonics provide a moving graph of the poet’s obsessions and distractions (what we call thinking!). She stayed true to this tonal intent from the start.
Within this music, she found means to address, with specificity: science, Euclidean geometry, philosophy, environmental causes, animal rights, farming (including her own Mead Ranch), medicine, history, law, democracy, the rights of women, water rights, family narratives of addiction, cosmology, immigration issues, the natural world, and the totemic power of music.
She can be, of course, readily numbered among “eco-poetic” poets, but her unique dedication to the earth and nature put her in a category all her own. An “eco-real” persona, her connection to Gaia was not the familiar data-driven and predictive meditation — it was rather her thoughts on dirt under her fingernails, grape-plucking, row-setting, worker needs, balancing books, and supervising vines. Photographed with her longtime ranch managers, Ramon and Silvia Rodriguez, amid harvest-ready acres, she appears to be listening to some high-decibel sound, like one of her beloved dogs. She provides a poem-anecdote about cutting off a rattler’s head with a shovel, then hanging its body on a ranch post as warning to other predators. When she returns to collect the head, the powerful jaws of the severed snake seize hard on her shovel lip. That shattered tenacity reflects her own indefatigable force, which was summoned to meet natural killers on their own ground or to confront implacable realities of money and death (a dog is bitten twice by a viper and survives, two beloved dogs do not survive the wildfires, the ranch “lets” some acres to a famous wine label). This is where the mind of Jane Mead deepened into an inspired practicality “with the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist,” as Nabokov defined a writer. The resultant Mead music came from life’s inescapable brutality as well as its infinitely variable beauty.
Jane Whitaker Mead was born on August 13, 1958, in Baltimore, Maryland, and died in hospice on September 8, 2019, at her home in Napa, California.
Alice James Books published her five full-length poetry collections and chapbook. Beyond her tenured years as poet-in-residence at Wake Forest University and her occasional teaching semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City (where she also co-owned Prairie Lights Bookstore) — and beyond her many major awards and acknowledgments — Mead Ranch remained at the heart of her experience as a poet, both before and after her return to manage the vineyard after her father’s death in 2003.
Jane had survived the horrific Napa wildfires — hiding in a surround of water-filled vines on the ranch with Ramon Rodriguez, as the firestorm swept mercilessly through. She witnessed her family home and other architectural landmarks on the property burn before her eyes down to their stone foundations, along with acres of vines, barns, cabins, culverts, pools, and lookouts. Family heirlooms, priceless art collections, an extensive library turned to char, smoke, and ash. The vineyard, the ranch buildings, all are now slowly being rebuilt — but Jane herself succumbed to another personal devastation — the cancer battle she waged on both coasts, then lost at last at home in Napa.
In an earlier review of Jane Mead’s book Money Money Money Water Water Water, I compared the poems to Virgil’s Georgics. I was focusing on the romance of viticulture — how the poet’s vineyard seemed both background narrative and unfolding metaphor regarding the “poetry of earth” (as Keats praised it and as Virgil cultivated it). I did indeed understand the book as haunted by our ongoing destruction of the Earth’s ecological balance, yet its resistance to the rhetoric of outrage located it, for me, within a longer tradition.
But I was wrong: none of these poems swim in the derivative. Still, one might be reminded, in passing, of A. R. Ammons, or maybe Terrance Hayes.
Many poets writing now compose in defiance of what is viewed as traditional harmony, so what is termed lyrical seems far away from the lyre. But the ancient lyre, its voice made of wind streaming through trees and grasses — into air articulate — is closest, I believe, to Jane Mead’s authentic “instrument.” In similar polyphony, she occasions thunder, fire, discordance, explosive ruptures in atmosphere and human relations. She “conducts” her thinking in her poems — and thus in each poem’s musical gesturing, she also “conducts” the reader.
Here is a Jane Mead imperative:
Go to your phonograph. Put on
Brandenburg Concerto Number Six.
This is about something very hard.
— This is about trying to live with that music
playing in the back of your mind.
Got that? Got that Bach-implacable splendor, the mind tracking what plays just behind a poet’s imagination as it shatters the whole, then remakes the world again?
That shattered leitmotif became her own, in book after book. So Mead’s lines employ atonal minor key asides and also solid rhyme — to shake awake dreaming citizens of poetry about Earth’s end: “You describe the waves and the pretty sky, / You say the sun is setting, justify the lie…”
After the chapbook opens the collection, the following poems from the book continue, on course. From House of Poured-out Waters:
maybe I’ll tell you how
sun’s a shattering I held onto,
maybe say it some way
you can make use of, maybe.
and from Money Money Money Water Water Water, a harsher condemnatory tune:
Poison born by air
Data on dead animals
Angry children on the move
She follows dark music down the vineyard rows: to highways, ocean, prairie, urban life. A family’s joy and torment, a father’s addiction, a mother’s long dying, and a daughter’s book-length evocation of her death (World of Made and Unmade). In all of her books, she records the nature of endings as ongoingness:
The loon call happens and happens —
ripples outward, colorless
and shocked, and nowhere
meeting with a love of life
to make it certain.
And in contemplating her father as a Harvard professor of ichthyology, providing her last collection’s title of ending and beginning:
In my father’s lab the aisles were narrow
the shelves were high, jars and jars:
the egg, the embryo, the adult male,
the adult female […]
[…] All that perfection.
World of made and unmade.
The music behind what “happens” in the poems is the unseen narrative that is nonetheless heard. As if a voice or many voices intone a story, the story of what is in the back of the mind, in the background of living consciousness. Mead uses music as counterpoint to the poem’s direction. Her music is often attached to the movement of her body and brain through space, that hidden chiming “beat”:
You can walk and keep on walking.
You can walk and arrive at water.
However far you get, go farther.
You are as free as you will ever be.
You are off the beaten track
of how you might not get there,
and you can mark the distance now in inches.
As she enlists the symphonic, so she also employs pop next to threnody, gospel, jazz, scriptural intoning, and the blues, as in “Walking Blues”:
Rain so dark I
can’t get through —
train going by
in a hurry. The voice
said walk or die, I
days of thought, nights
of worry, — lonesome
train in a hurry.
Mead’s fascination with systems of thought that have defined our lives — but of which there is little collective memory — is brilliantly embodied in “We Approach Magna Carta” (the 1215 charter of human rights that curtailed the power of tyrannical monarchy, a proto-democratic document drafted by rebel nobles): “What greater claim? / What monumental difficulty — / turning law into democracy —”
Mead sends up this foundational document, yet, as usual her musical accompaniment offers a differing fixative: “[A]nd where’s the shore from there? / In the interim accounts are kept — / memories washed up to live with.”
If her conclusion regarding the resistance of nobility to tyranny, the step forward via noblesse oblige, remains cloudy, it is because she tends to respond to query, as always, in light of the intuitive manner in which the mind sings: “[T]he mind gives over its small grave of secrets // this is the way to know what you know…”
Mead’s introspective style goes on steadying itself over the 551 pages of To the Wren. At times, the overall intensity of the authorial voice diminishes — but when the music goes silent, she interrogates that silence and lets the silence answer in the tradition of Keats’s “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” Her (heard) response:
Unruffled un-trusted unheard
Unheard from sea-marsh unfailing beech
Undeveloped seedpods un-housed
I come unhoused
The poems in Jane Mead’s final books, as well as the new poems, are the fulfillment of a life’s work, a life’s writing. Though she has noted, in a poem called “The Complexity of Music” — “At the bottom of music / a phrase is missing” — this is her complete oeuvre. Jane Mead’s lyrical argument is settled finally on her own terms, on her own premises, and according to her own masterful sense of language, singing:
… in the dead of winter when stars
of ice have spread across the windows
and everything is perfectly still
until you catch the sound of something
lost and shy beating its wings.
And then: music.
Carol Muske-Dukes is an award-winning author of nine books of poems, four novels, and two essay collections. Her poetry collection Blue Rose (2018) was a long list finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is professor of English and Creative Writing at USC and founder of its PhD program in Creative Writing and Literature.