K.i.m.. B.r.i.d.g.f.o.r.d

"Her Kind" of Sonnet: A Review of Julie Kane's Jazz Funeral

Jazz Funeral
Julie Kane
58 pages | Story Line Press 2009 | $14.95

nyone who knows Julie Kane's work knows she is one of the funniest poets writing. The success of Rhythm and Booze, selected by Maxine Kumin for the National Poetry Series (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and a finalist for the Poets' Prize, made readers anticipate her next collection. Although Jazz Funeral, selected by David Mason as the winner of this year's Donald Justice Prize, is not as varied in terms of its forms or as wild and bawdy as its predecessor, it does not disappoint.

     While in Rhythm and Booze, Kane uses primarily the villanelle, the sonnet is the exclusive organizing principle of jazz funeral. The book is made up of three sections of fourteen sonnets, each a type of macro sonnet with a different rhythm. The first section, "The March to the Graveyard," falls into two halves, and then again into two smaller subsections. The second section, "The Eulogy," a crown, falls into fourteen parts; and the last section, "Cutting the Body Loose, falls into groups of four, two, five, and three. This sense of movement emblemizes what happens on a micro level, for Kane is a master of modulation and pause.

Kane provides a counterpoint to the masculine sonnet tradition with her slant rhyme and colloquial voice.
Moreover, Kane provides a counterpoint to the masculine sonnet tradition with her slant rhyme and colloquial voice.

     While the sonnet is the book's form, the subject of the book is death, jazz its musical referent, and New Orleans its location. The tripartite nature of the jazz funeral. is the organizing principle of the volume, marking shifts in subject matter and mood. In addition, jazz as a tradition is a backdrop, as this book of sonnets is about the exploration of a single form on a single subject.

     The first section, "The March to the Graveyard," takes up the march to death as a theme; the poem "Whisker" is an exploration of the shock of middle age:

Suddenly, this barb growing out of my chin,
as sharp as the quill on a porcupine:
the fault of a middle-aged shift in hormones,
that dot of the Other in the yin-yang sign.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                              I worry that my face,
cut open, might yield one mile-long hair
curled up like a spool of measuring tape. (1-4, 6-8)

Plunging us into this absurd landscape, Kane marks a shift from Rhythm and Booze, and sticks her whisker out at death.

     If the attitude of the poem is its salient feature in terms of subject matter, its rhyme scheme is in terms of form. A Shakespearean sonnet in terms of development, its rhymes vascillate between a traditional rhyme scheme and no rhymes at all. With such a choice, Kane illustrates the ambiguous landscape of middle age, as well as paradoxically charting a course for new territory.

     Exhibiting an almost childlike fascination, the speaker contemplates a list of absurd outcomes for her "mile-long hair" (7): "would it twirl from my jaw like a catfish's whisker, / a kingbird's vibrissa, a bighorn sheep's spike, / a frayed piece of line from a fight-weary fish?" (11-13). The last possibility references Bishop's "The Fish," but then Kane asks, "If I can't be a Bishop, could I be a witch?" (14) Punning on the word Bishop, Kane chooses to be the outsider, referencing Anne Sexton's "Her Kind," where being a witch means not being "a woman, quite" (6). Kane is "her kind."

     In "Whisker" Kane tries on "witch"; in the next poem in the collection, she tries on "bitch." But who is the "bitch" in Kane's poem of that name? The dog? The mother? The daughter? When the speaker feels sorry for a mangy dog hanging around the house, her mother says, "'Oh, get yourself a life'" (1). The poem, which is only three sentences, rushes down the page, so that the pairs of interlocking rhymes--"snapped/cat" (1/3), "moth-/ud-" (2/4), "bone-/phoned" (5/7), "patch-/catch-" (6/8), "pooped/room" (7/9), "feath-/altogeth" (10/12), and "said/dead" (13/14)--have the potential to sound abrupt. Following the tradition of poets like Marianne Moore and Marilyn Hacker, Kane's deft selections have a quick, airy feel, moving effortlessly over the grid of the sonnet. The true rhymes of the concluding couplet emphasize the poem's irony: the mother is dead, and the speaker is alive.

     "Ode on Grimalkin Urns," referencing the speaker's containers for her dead cats, is more macabre and slapstick, a poem with the dark humor of Hitchcock's Family Plot. Like "Bitch," "Ode on Grimalkin Urns" depends on long sentences and a colloquial voice to run down the metrical hill of the sonnet. The breathlessness of the voice underscores the speaker running both to and from death.

     Even before beginning the poem, Kane has the reader laughing about the delightful pun on Keats. Then there is a description of the urns: "One's celadon, an Asian ginger jar / one's metal, overwrought with cartoon cats / attacking balls of yarn--think 'Hallmark card'" (2-3). Linking herself with the woman in Sylvia Plath's poem "Edge," the speaker pokes fun at herself, and her numerous cat urns, by saying: "I'm running out of coffin-room to tuck them / under my toga like Plath's coiled kids" (7-8). Like Plath in "Daddy," Kane finds death funny, although Kane has a lighter touch:

My ex's mother had a poodle die
in Sabine, Texas, and her husband dug
its grave while she was sleeping, then forgot
precisely where in all that oilfield muck
he'd planted Happy. (9-13)

To become preoccupied with urns or burial grounds is a mistake, as the speaker finds out: "Heraclitus said: Throw out like dung the bodies of the dead" (13-14). After the softened rhymes of the first three quatrains--"jar/cats/card/plas-" (1-4), then "lugged/digs/them/kids" (5-8), then "die/dug/forgot/muck" (9-12)--the true rhyme emerges, "said/dead" (13-14), giving the poem closure.

     The middle section, "The Eulogy," is made up of a single poem, "A Hobo's Crown for Ralph Borsodi." A longtime resident of New Orleans, he gave up wealth and obscured his identity in order to live the freer life he wanted.

     The poem is a daring move. Interrelated sonnet sequences are difficult, with Marilyn Nelson's "A Wreath for Emmett Till" and Mark Jarman's "Unholy Sonnets" memorable exceptions; moreover, this is one sonnet short of the sonnet redouble or magistrale. Without the "ur" sonnet, which is usually either the first or fifteenth sonnet, the repeating lines cannot establish themselves or repeat themselves for closure. Kane uses a paradoxical set-up: the repeating lines unify the disparate parts of Borsodi's life; yet the form ends abruptly, as Borsodi himself did (he took his own life). The poem is also apt in giving a "crown" to this king of the coffeehouse, even though it is "a hobo's."

     A love poem, this piece pays tribute to Borsodi's morality and anti-consumerism:

               you would never shop
in stores (preferring curbside garbage cans),
or take a razor to your waist-long beard,
or stand in judgment of your fellow man. (2.11-14)

This is the spirit of rebellion Kane has claimed for herself in "Whisker." Not all the things the two iconoclasts share are positive, though; they both have been diagnosed with cancer--"your odds were zero, mine were two in three" (5.10). Yet one experience Borsodi did not have to share was Hurricane Katrina:

               You never lived to see
The halls of Charity entombed with mold,
Dead bodies strewn like roadkill in the streets,
Borsodi's flooded like a toilet bowl.
Thank God for that, at least. (14.10-13)

Although ultimately "A Hobo's Crown for Ralph Borsodi" feels a little long, it never feels as if it is walking through its paces, a common flaw of such an enterprise.

     Wisely, Kane ends the book with "Cutting the Body Loose," a series of shorter poems, which moves progressively toward a note of celebration. Two stand-out poems are "Not Another Elegy for You" and "Used Book," atypical love poems. The first is about a teacher, whose most salient feature is his smell: "Nineteen, your student, sitting next to you, / I breathed that pepper-incense, getting drunk / on possibilities of words and flesh" (7-9). Carpe diem poems try to escape the grave, but this one has a new angle: "The human stink gets purged inside the vault" (14). This grave, then, brings relief.

     The clipped form of the poem, breaking into tiny sections, helps to emphasize its direct, almost confrontational aspect and illustrates the passing of time, just as the choice of iambic tetrameter does in "To His Coy Mistress." The rhyme scheme becomes increasingly regular, emphasizing the poem's conclusion.

     One of the funniest poems in the volume is "Used Book," which describes the delight of happening upon one's own chapbook in a used bookstore in London. Made up of only two sentences, the poem takes its time, describing the discovery of the book--its cover, its condition, the luck of finding the book at all. Sentence two delivers the punchline, with the joke being on the speaker. Her former lover has sold his copy. If one looks at the placement of the caesuras--often a pause in the first or second foot alternated with a longer line--one begins to see the mastery of Kane's craft, and the deft way one can build suspense in a sonnet, and release it.

     Ending the collection is "Purple Martin Suite," which brings the three parts of the book to closure with a three-part poem. Moreover, it takes up the subject of death, and makes an obvious parallel, with its birds, to those at the end of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning." Yet Kane's poem is more celebratory, even though she agrees with Stevens, on a range of levels, that "Death is the mother of beauty" (5.3).

     Framed by a quotation by Audubon, who enjoyed watching the ritual migration in New Orleans of purple martins, the poem ends up being an "excuse" (1.1) for a party. Having never witnessed this ritual, the speaker goes along with her friends, but then is amazed

               as birds arrived
in ones and twos and in blue-black streams
to scribble meaninglessly on the sky. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and suddenly the birds began to soar
in perfect loop-de-loops and barrel rolls,
while squadrons of them flying synchronized
as vintage prop planes in an aircraft show. (2.2-4, 9-12)

Like the poems in the collection, the birds move as a collective, and gather accumulated meaning. The speaker notes that connection forms "the way a mother braids a daughter's hair / or villanelle picks up old lines of text" (3.7-8). While Stevens' birds move "downward to darkness on extended wings" (8.15), the purple martins move out into larger and larger groups of themselves, into nature and darkness, and the speaker is left in a celebratory atmosphere with her friends:

We stood and clapped as if we'd seen the Meters reunited on a Jazz Fest stage,
joined beat to beat and holding in our breath
as night fell on that holiday from death. (3.11-14)

These last four lines might sum up the theme of Kane's book as a whole; while night is all around us, there is cause for celebration. With the achievement of Jazz Funeral, there is too.

Works Cited

Kane, Julie. Jazz Funeral. West Chester, PA: Story Line Press, 2009.

---. Rhythm and Booze. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Sexton, Anne. "Her Kind." The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton. Foreword by Maxine Kumin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 15-16.

Stevens, Wallace. "Sunday Morning." The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Ed. Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1988. 281-84.


Kim Bridgford is a professor of English at Fairfield University, the editor of Dogwood and Mezzo Cammin, and a resident faculty member of Fairfield's new M.F.A. program on Enders Island, off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut. The recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, she is the author of three collections of poetry: Undone, Instead of Maps, and In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records. She is currently working on a three-book poetry and photography project with visual artist Jo Yarrington, focusing on journey and sacred space in Iceland, Venezuela, and Bhutan. She was the 2007 Connecticut Touring Poet.


Kim Bridgford

Lauren Clay: Addressing feelings of lost cultural identity and sitelessness, this work investigates ideas of the self as discerned through the lense of place and site. The search is influenced by various mythologies of place, such as the inherited place, found through home and community; the internal place which exists in the psyche or imagination; and the discovered place, found through study or travel.
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