Family System

By Jack Christian

Center for Literary Publishing
November 2012

Reviewed by Crystal Hoffman


In the poems of Family System, Jack Christian is looking for his father through a via negativa—through what's been carved out, the branches not burnt, the beer he didn't drink, the shorted porch lights. He is searching for his mother through collage and the chance meeting of humaffalo and dog ghost. And it just so happens that these are our parents, too. But there's nothing grand about it. This is a simple world to step into, free of apocalypse, ascension, and exorcism. We're nice as we wake Jesus up after he sleeps through his alarm clock on Easter morning. We understand that there's little repercussion in choosing warm laundry over salvation. When we're eulogizing squirrels in shoeboxes, it is ourselves lowering into the earth. The paradox is recited in simple terms. Like when Neil Diamond sings, "intensity is meaning,/and in this there is rebirth and also absence,/a paternal kind." Where the hell has he been all of our collective childhood?

Family System opens with the title poem, a kind of meditation upon the structure of the universe as parents in a dependent relationship. The narrator thinks of them in alternately humble, exalting, and derogatory terms. They are infinity, "a long ride in a station wagon," "inside two plants/joined at the stalk," and/or "a tomato slice stuck in a fly wheel." They are "too busy convulsing" to know how they form the universe, so here we are figuring it out for them.

This collection quickly reveals itself for what it is—a new method for the revelation of the noumenal/numinous in our generation; the new finger pointing towards the relationships, archetypes, journeys, and sequences of symbols that draw us closer to the world begging to trail us back into material reality. This is the work of poet as maker, as arranger of bones, as adept necromancer, as most pathetic at prayer. He teaches his methods, "Wisteria and twilia and an airplane/Then an airplane then a palm frond/My ritual was azaleas bloomed/crocus bloomed." Now what's yours? He lays out the trail that is branch that is air. Here's your invitation.

Christian is particularly aware of the space created through surrealist collage and unification of opposites. Not in that the tiny paradoxes he lays before us are stranger, more shocking, or even very far from our traditional chance meetings of umbrellas and sewing machines on operating tables, but in that they are built with pure intention, a focused eye and a steady guiding hand that nudges us in the space behind the curtain, as if to say "look at what I've opened for you!" And a whole new church or playground of thought emerges:

It's raining, but Matt says, that isn't rain.
You make tea with it or it gets to you. It's an antelope.     
In other converted basements the people speak Arawakan—
I'm just saying. Ours belonged to Harris;
we call it Harris's House.
His spirit wanders like the rest of us.
What we want is to stand in a breath.
Often, this is called the coffee sprout.
Some imply there is a blue rodent
but they are being Kafkaesque
and are drunk, or else enamored of the inarticulate.

The shock is lessened, but the joy of revealing the lessons that zen koans and new metaphors for the lotus sutra can teach us. But it's clear that Christian didn't write these poems thinking he was going to save any souls, not even his own, and this is why no spiritual toes are stepped on. Here you simply crack open your skull and see what leaks out. Christian gives you no mantras in a foreign tongue or specters of long-dead sages. He simply hands you that which already resides there between that stale French baguette and your tenth-grade Humanities teacher. He unifies what exists and explodes that which has been begging for it.

Christian retells the parable of the chariot as only a twenty-first century American can understand. And that's exactly what we need. That's exactly what our on-the-road-to-what-we-have-to-start-admitting-is-enlightenment-poetry-reading-masses need to hear. Thank all of the gods that someone is stepping up the plate to give it them. "A thing is defined by the sum of its parts." Thank Blake's Satan we don't fall for that trick anymore. But Christian is there like any good trickster to spark up the argument—consciously or unconsciously, he's making you look at your demon. Freeing you of control; not doing a damn thing at all. He's not trying; he's simply one of the lucky ones who can make their poems simultaneously their own journey and leave them staked as signposts—there's gold in them there hills and here there be monsters:

In the yard a tarn is growing,
is defining itself by parts of itself.

That is what we call chance
and plot its progressions on a board

and say what flies are Purple Martins
and nothing is a condition of the magnolia.

Nothing is floating inside a jar.
We can place it. Then, we hold it close.

We push it against the door.

So how a bug? So how this martin frozen
and this one bubbled-up, and these make one bird and go?

Aside from the ever-present goal of calling attention to language itself and how its borders define our individual manifestations of reality, the melding of simple sentence structures and disjointed, clipped syntax creates a voice that is authoritative only in its easy acceptance of these phrases—that they exist without the established purpose of grammar. They are graceful in their purely aesthetic selves. Here we see an evolution of Dickinson, Stein, and Jorie Graham, accessibility that stems from a finely wrought attention to those intentional silences, admissions of absence, of the unutterable:

What about a tar patch. Which keeps one later.
Which more easily taken for confidence. Which for anarchy.
     What about
an uppermost part. What about on a roadtrip.
What, for the sake of confusion.
And do your feet turn in the shape of hallelujah.
Do the prayers travel well. Are they like fruitcake.
In any case, how do they meander. Or, is it we'd better fling
Are those insightful to hear about or just kind of
some private thoughts. Like noodles then. Discernable in
     darkness maybe.

Likewise, the tone, a fairly unemotional, detached voice, guides us through this realm of secular prayer and paradox, the small joke behind eyelids, and it gives the reader even more immediate access to what is being discussed. It strikes one as foolish that these observations were not made on one's own. It comes across as obvious, but difficult—like we just couldn't sit still long enough to get there. Christian goes there for us, certainly no easy journey, but there is no evidence of the struggle in the writing, except for what is brought back. It's a voice that is engaged in precisely its business and nothing else. It lets go of the boundaries and dives into the holes, dragging you along if you can keep up.

This is a book that is meant to be read slowly, each paradox and clipped line savored and understood. If you do so they'll change something in the way you view your place in the world, like all great poems. They'll leave you breathless, on the verge of tears for short moments. It could be heaven; it could be cake. Either way, did you realize your leg is on fire? That mine has grown longer since opening this book? That my dog could guide you to hell and back out again? Oh. Okay. Just wondering—on to the next poem.

Christian needs no florid images or thick descriptive language. No esoteric knowledge is required for absorption. This is your initiation in-and-of-itself—your willingness to disconnect from logic. Where there are endings, they are definitive and elsewise they don't exist, just like the gods that our narrator is trying to pray to. It's a Blakeian outlook put in a post-structuralist blender. It teaches analysis without judgment, a standard rule for mediation. And what is poetry but mantra bringing something back with it? Hopefully, you, the reader, will make this leap too, bring both your legs back with you, land on earth that is a little less solid, and leave you a little shaky—just shaky enough that some of these words will become new flesh.