Terri Witek

Lions in the Trees: Josephine Jacobsen

I once attended a residency which began with a screening of Carolee Schneeman's Devour, a collection/construction of photos in which a woman in her 60's goes ecstatically lip to lip and tongue to tongue with her household cat. It's hard to describe how graphic these images seemed--how gleefully they put paid to hostile stereotypes of women at a certain age, for example, by chronicling a reaction to the cultural desexualizing of such women. Yet for all their shock value, the feline images in Devour, depending as they do on deeply familiar symbolic terrain, are less slippery than the many cats of Josephine Jacobsen, whose poetry in particular suggests stereotypes only to track them into deceptively simple linguistic thickets. Thus it is that while Jacobsen's cats can embody familiar tropes of queasy exoticism or renegade domesticity, they also slope off into a third position which is ultimately a poetic stance. To get to that more abstracted third position, Jacobsen regularly assembles her test group--cats are summoned up in almost two dozen poems in the 1995 In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems alone. What she does with this feline assortment is to experiment with them as creations (creatures) both inside and outside her own consciousness in order to arrive at a linguistic solution which undoes the implied dichotomy. Her solution is by evidence of her work in three genres a matter of deeply held belief as well as literary practice.

Since Jacobsen uses different kinds of cats to make slightly different points, her cats are distinguishable by type, although the distinctions are usually offered without fanfare. Jacobsen was herself modest when confronted with reviews that described her as "an animal poet": in a 1975 lecture at the Agnes Scott Writer's Festival (The Instant of Knowing, 53-54) she claims never to have previously thought of herself in this manner. However, she obliges with a list; among the assorted fauna are both her signature cat, the "lion," and the "tiger." While lions often initiate the linguistic wrestling match which confers poetic identity in Jacobsen's poems, tigers are usually deployed as a type of costuming. From the Halloween outfits of the small girl in "All Hallows Party" (In the Crevice of Time, 52) to the circus tiger who bears "flame shallow on the hide" in "Carney Elegy" (176) and the dog named Tiger in a poem of the same name (202), tigers seem related to what the writer calls "The Animal Inside the Animal" in the poem of that name (71). The latter, of course, is inspired by a passage in The Golden Bough: there, the doubling describes the soul within the body and the heart within the chest, a language of double costuming that has fueled much metaphysical poetry and many festivals of transgression as well as the oft-bruited claim that word is merely representative of deeper, less knowable world. To all poets this argumentative terrain, represented in Jacobsen most flamboyantly by her tigers, is as familiar as a hometown into which the circus periodically descends.

The thing-within-a-thing machinery of this prototypical idea is, at its most particular, an anxiety about consumption--in Schneeman's terms, about what devours what. It is well-documented that Jacobsen was anxious about what she terms our "incorrigible anthropomorphism," a type of colonializing that drains and shrinks wilderness as "steadily, heavily, we try to feed our egos by forcing the wild to become tame" (The Instant, 125-127). That she wants to refrain from this practice doesn't mean that she avoids the subject: in the poem "How We Learn," (In the Crevice, 162) for example, a man "starving in Stalingrad" eats his cat, while the process is reversed in "They Were Never Found," (84) a poem that ends with a series of deaths: "one by his store / one on her scooter / one in the dangerous company of his cats." And while Jacobsen may suspect such devourings (and she clearly disapproves when they are performed by westerners on exoticized others), she also sometimes excuses them. When she says "Poor cannibals, we eat what we can / it is honorable to sustain life," we know she is talking about more than "Food," (158) and indeed we are doubly certain of this in "Gentle Reader" (140) when the poet responds to reading Yeats:

O God, it peels me, juices me like a press
the poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow
until I exist in its jester's sorrow,
until my juices feed a savage sight
that runs along the lines, bright
as beasts' eyes. ... .
Even domestic cats, which sometimes appear as mere delicate slivers of yellow ("Presences," 226), seem caught up in this dynamic; pet Cheops has only to put his paw on the author's "page" in "Language as an escape from the Discrete" (167) and "the space between us drains my marrow...." Such creatures, enclosed in a human space despite their renegade qualities, remind us that they too are subject to the "animal within an animal" dynamic that Jacobsen is drawn to yet seems stubbornly committed to seeking poetic escape from.

Jacobsen comes nearest to circumventing this powerful metaphoric situation when she distributes her cats so they are neither devourers nor devoured. That working other configurations of the subject was important to her is suggested by the fact that she attempts them not only in her poetry but in her short stories and, perhaps most surprisingly, in her critical prose. The fiction makes the attendant dangers and possibilities especially clear, especially when she sets them in the semi-colonialized landscapes and provides a third-person, limited-omniscient narrator who is a "Visitor" (a word she also uses in the poem "Short Views on Africa."(182)). This Visitor immediately identifies with indigenous populations rather than her own tribe, a scenario made especially vivid in a story like "The Jungle of Lord Lion" (What Goes Without Saying, 45-68) in which a "colored" chauffeur driving tourists through his country's landscape is insulted by a boorish woman passenger. This affront horrifies our narrator, who herself thinks of the chauffeur's hands on the steering wheel as "paws"(45). The transforming piece of knowledge in the story is not that she, alone among outsiders, seems to know that the chauffeur's familiar-to-locals performance name is "Lord Lion." Rather, she understands why he regards himself as superior to other performers: he "sings his own compositions." Both "Lord Lion" and the "Visitor" thus quietly steer us toward the importance of original speech no matter where it can be discovered.

The relationship between these two short-story characters is especially suggestive because lions are usually the choice for Jacobsen's most poetically ambitious attempts to revise the "animal within animal" tendency she's both subject to and suspicious of. Exoticized and racialized in his particular short story, "Lord Lion" also has more Roman associations, not only to life-and-death coliseum exhibitions but also to the many back-stories of Roman Catholicism. When Father Consadine of the short story "Late Fall" (What Goes, 119-130) dreams of a lion and a desert, he is fantasizing himself as a contemplative, much like the lion cohabiting St. Jerome. The Catholic lion also represents St. Mark, part of a balanced bestiary of evangelists Jacobsen lists in her poem, "The Animals" (47): "The lion the man the calf the eagle saying / Sanctus which was and is and is to come." Medieval legend associates lions with clear seeing--they are unable to close lidless eyes--and Renaissance ones equate lions with the risen Christ, as cubs were said to be born dead and then stirred to life by a sire's powerful breath (this version of the watchful protector reanimator is renewed mid-20th century by Catholic writer C.S. Lewis, who refashions them in the Tales of Narnia's great lion Aslan). Jacobsen's attempts to both evoke and rewrite such ancient associations suggest that a poet of high ambition dwells within her sometimes self-deprecating manner.

Tellingly, whether her cats are domestic, exotic, or thus evangelized, Jacobsen comes closest to cracking apart the old, powerful dichotomy of devourer and devoured when the struggle is transposed into art. When interviewer John Wheatcroft responds to "Gentle Reader," which offers the image of Yeats' poetry (and, by extension, of all great poetry which precedes us) as voracious consumer of its readers (who are, of course, implied consumers themselves), he remarks, "Of course, most people wouldn't think of poetry as dangerous at all. " Jacobsen responds by switching her modernists: "Oh my, you remember Wallace Stevens saying that wonderful thing: 'It lies in the sun. Its head is on its paws. It could kill a man.' I think it's tremendously dangerous." Then she tries two other metaphors for poetry: "I think it's a minefield" and "reading it is like climbing a mountain," she claims (The Instant, p. 181). What seems especially interesting in her summary of Stevens' "Poetry is a Destructive Force" is that her effort to explain via further analogy is itself productive: devoured by Yeats' poetry lion, she is freed by Stevens to grope toward other images, as if by caging herself with figurative animals is a way of initiating their (and her own) escape. What follows the attempt is a certain largeness of vision: her next metaphors describe poetry by claiming different territories, each to one side of the world we inhabit : mountains above, minefields below.

When Jacobsen uses Steven's lion to visualize different poetic positions (even if both are "dangerous"), she is working her way out of the potentially fatal dichotomizing she often takes as subject. For example, no one is devoured in of "The Enemy of the Herds, the Lion,"(In the Crevice, 89-90) a poem in which a lion and a sheep are engaged in sexualized struggle forever because they are fashioned on the lid of an ancient burial box. As made things, the creatures are not only "tranced and ardent in the act of taking/ utter enough to be love" but "...a thing / a lion-sheep without division," with the word suitably hyphenized. Most importantly, they are discoverable after 4500 years because they lie with a third "thing"--a lady, dead though she be. The living observer, the poem's Visitor/Poet, in turn uses this work of art to reformulate herself not as resistant (as her narrator was to fellow tourists in "The Jungle of Lord Lion") but as one who can learn by example to take on "a pure mastery older than Ur" as the beginning of her own freed speech. For her efforts, the reward is not only the box, her problem metaphor held forever, but ruminations as long-lasting as art: "What word did her box-beasts mean?" The rest of the poem lists "possi- / bilities." It seems important that the word itself is both split and joined (like the box-beasts)--the hyphen and line break enact and hold dichotomizing at bay in order to spark more possibilities: the suggestion is offered at the most basic, word-making level of these more linguistically experimental poems.

To summon the dangerous yet undevourable lion principle at the level of association rather than plot thus leads Josephine Jacobsen, especially in her later poems, into some modest late-modernist effects of her own. To experiment with poetic position she treats sentences like strange but familiar locales: within a sentence, for example, her tendency to list works as structural loosening. Anyone who grew up in a religion based on ideas of trinity has watched a list become tethered much less securely with the arrival of a third element: thus the Holy Ghost can be figured as dove. Tellingly, Jacobsen's cats often appear in lists about other things, shifty markers which open things up: we may notice a game of Scrabble in "The Sisters" in which the progression is "salmon," "cat," "who," "why," and "go," (In the Crevice, 197) as if simply summoning feline after food source spurs her into both metaphysical questions and an escape command. Cats as linguistic gameskeepers aren't confined to the poetry; they prompt the short story writer to split and recombine proverbs: "Care killed the cat," and, best, "When in Rome, get fed to the lions" are quips attributed to Jacobsen's fictional characters. Almost hallucinatory human/cat characters even appear in narrative situations in the poems: in "The Moon Will Restore the Virginity of My Sister" (125) the persona goes humorously and suggestively talon to talon with her manicurist.

Cats remain unfettered figures of symbolic suggestion--just recently, poet Henri Cole offered his own startling lion-imagery in summing up his military and Catholic childhood: "It was like a lion's paw pressing down on my throat, but at the same time the lion succored me, licking my young face." A little later in the interview, he describes language as "the gold bars behind which something else paces" (American Poetry Review, 43-46). Jacobsen would most certainly acknowledge the lineage of such imagery, and the dichotomous tendencies it represents, in one of the next generation's most excellent "animal poets." Most important to her own ideas about the nature of being, though, is her unwillingness to allow the old dichotomies to stand unchallenged. The premier example of her challenge, of course, is the much-discussed "Lion Under Maples," (In the Crevice, 210) in which she achieves her own brand of late modernist poetic by situating a not-native beast under a native tree--or equally likely, a native beast under a not-native tree. Once the "lion is under maples," that is to say, it can appear anywhere. At the level of linguistic reconstruction, the lion/maples pairing appears to set free the lion, who may now arrive from his group of two to a quicker-than-we-can-bat-an-eye group of three: he'll find her "...In a clearing, / in the heat, in a wink."

Because their meeting resembles one between lovers, we are reminded of the latent sexual terrors implied in any pairing which threatens to become a feast of consumption. In Jacobsen's poetry, the ecstasy of reading Yeats seems sexual, as do the death grip of the lion/lamb and the relationship of the lady tourist and "Lord Lion." While lionesses appear in Jacobsen's work, often red-maned and feeding their young in demonstration of the long heritage of devouring, the nearer, more dangerous lions are male. The 1978 essay "The Handless Clock" offers a particularly lurid treeful of African lions: "heads propped in the crotch of a branch, furry pelts flacid along the limb, legs, tails, hanging limp and motionless." This sexual dangling is as frozen as the entwined lion/sheep on the burial box. When Jacobsen describes the scene as: "Not a stir of wind. Not a sound. Not an eyeblink" (The Instant , 138) she positions herself once more as the Visitor who looks without flinching. That this provides a way out of the consumption metaphor (and implied danger) in this particular instance is signaled by the fact that the last three elements of the scene's description closely mirror the "In a clearing/ in the heart, in a wink" trinity of the her poetic manifesto, "Lions Under Maples." She of course realized the power of this particular poem's formulation of poetic power. In her 1991 essay of the same name Jacobsen takes her own childhood story and applies the principle of two becomes three to construct an origin myth (The Instant, 10-12). In it she describes three experiences that took her out of "herself" as a child. In the first she sits alone in a dogwood tree, the second in a long-leafed pine, and the third takes place in a wallflower meadow: all three offer geographically different locales and autobiographical positions from a not yet overtly sexualized childhood. The age of the protagonist is crucial for another, related reason: she is at first five or six, not yet privy to the mysteries of symbolic cannibalism in Holy Communion. In the first tree she sits in the "crotch" and is motionless, as if stopped at the moment of birth. In the second tree she has to hang on more tightly as "the branches are slimmer," and motion arrives as sound, "a great sustained sigh." Then, as in every functional trinity, the third element provides the meaningful variation: this time the protagonist is "down in plumy grasses over my head" and the flower names have yet to be learned. Neither can she identify the source of the humming, except that it has moved into creaturely bodies: "Gnats?" she guesses. "Or bees?"

Josephine Jacobsen's riveting self-portrait reveals a child who no matter where she lived was in lion training from the first. According to her telling of it, this carefully ordered trio of experiences functioned to get her out of the first two trees of beginning understanding and on the poetic prowl. Thus she could learn to feel "acutely something for which I have no words but which requires response." This is, of course, the perfect poetic situation--the world she roams is still unnamed but eminently nameable, as she demonstrates by reinserting into her tale the names of three wildflowers she once knew only as "yellow and white and red." Now they are "buttercups and daisies and devil's paintbrush," names that petal beyond themselves into more vivid connotations. Jacobsen thus enacts, in this telling vignette, the education of a writer: in it she constructs a world which is neither devouring nor devourable, but ready to be touched and retouched by her open mouth.

Works Cited

Cole, Henri. Interview. With Christopher Hennessy. American Poetry Review May/June 2004.

Jacobsen, Josephine. In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995.

___. The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism and Occasional Prose. Ed. Elizabeth Spires. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1997.

___. What Goes Without Saying: Collected Stories. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1996.


Terri Witek is the author of The Shipwreck Dress, Carnal World, Fools and Crows, Robert Lowell and LIFE STUDIES: Revising the Self. She holds the Art and Melissa Sullivan Chair in Creative Writing at Stetson University.


Angela O'Donnell
Terri Witek

Meredith Bergmann: My work has always seemed cut out for me. I give myself assignments or I take commissions to find challenges to make heroic work in which the themes must be expressed with beauty and with irony. Light touches on dark subjects help me break away what's monolithic or opaque. No thing, for me, embodies mystery, gives life to clay, or conveys narrative enduringly as can the human form. Loving to sculpt and to manipulate ideas, I'm happiest when I can give new meaning to old urges, or can warm a concept into art that's worth its weight.
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