Book Review: Nobody's Jackknife (Ellen McGrath Smith)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

Nobody's Jackknife is the long-awaited first collection by Ellen McGrath Smith—long awaited because those of us who have read and admired her poems over the years have often wondered where a book was—or when. There is something magnificent about encountering for the first time in book form the work of a poet whose voice has been forged out of the spotlight—in the shade of long writing and long reflection. You feel as if, all in one fell swoop, a new world or a new way of seeing is set before you—dense, nuanced, jazzy, and acute. This is the kind of book Nobody's Jackknife is—the flowering of a voice that has taken the time to patiently grow deep roots, develop a highly particular mode of feeling the world.

Nobody's Jackknife concerns—or rather pivots around—notions of compulsion versus discipline, addiction versus life practice, alcoholism and yoga—the notion of obsession set against the notion of persistence.

The writing itself is one of the pleasures of this collection—Ellen McGrath Smith is a poet who has written and spoken extensively of her experiences as hard-of-hearing, and the sounds in this collection testify to a quirky attentive listening, a playful, but also solemn lyric gift for sending sounds spinning and colliding one another. The images here are finely wrought yet also grounded. Landscapes emerge with clarity and close detail—city streets, barrooms, the decayed industrial city and its suburban cul de sacs, and, most of all, the landscape of the observant mind, the soul.

Following a long and extraordinary autographical poem, entitled "The Locust: A Foundational Narrative," (which I will discuss more later) McGrath Smith divides the collection into themed sections. The first concerns drinking as practice, with poems names after various potable concoctions—"Gin and Tonic," "Absinthe," "Port." An intermediary section—the recovery section if you will, speaks of finding the self after losing the self through a contemplation of what performance means in relation to form or the forms beneath daily life and love. The fourth and final section is more overtly about the life of sustained practice, with poems names after a variety of yoga poses. Through this trajectory—from addiction to reflective practice, McGrath Smith is able to illuminate with verve and vision the traumas that shape a life, that give it form and, ultimately substance—the evolution of girlhood, the urgency and loneliness of sex and sexuality, the difficult practice of being or becoming human.

The early drinking poems explore—and often with a kind of mordant wit—how the performance of drinking—the life of the barroom, the late night, the one night, the long night—is a means by which her speaker can feel a power she is not sure she actually possesses: "she dangled her arms like she actually had power/and jangled her keys—metal army—/remembering milk-carton armadas." ("Minor Casualty, 2003"). Yet McGrath Smith is after more than simply telling a familiar cautionary tale. On the contrary, she is almost heartbreakingly sensually attuned to how addiction often springs out of a capacious longing to possess and take in all the vagrant beauties of the dauntingly large world of possible experience: "Summer with its Bacchus-head of grape-eaves,/Summer with its berry-bloodied grin." ("Gin and Tonic"). She makes you feel the allure and risk, and the sadness beneath any addiction:

The bottom of the day, the bottom of a well
musty with yes and no and maybe not.
But, here, you know where you are
relative to the sky and tomorrow,
that half-shut eye.


If the poses the drinkers in these poems take are ultimately self-defeating, they are also bracingly self-aware—often seeking and uncovering subterranean seams of resistance and hope. As the collection, and the speaker, move into recovery—a recovery achieved in part through a serious engagement with yoga, what is striking is that this recovery is at once a shift, yet also oddly corollary to what has gone before. Yoga in McGrath Smith's handling of it is less exercise program or method of clean living, than a practice of a deepening engagement with life as mystery, the acute awareness that the self is is always on the verge of losing touch, metaphorically at the edge of an ocean. One of the pleasures of this section of the book is how imaginatively McGrath Smith frames and unpacks the notion of performance, pose and/or posture within such a program:

The child posed as a house of cold,
ungiving rafters. All alone, the child
is architect of hunger: face in shadow,
knees, feet, forehead touch the floor.
A small soul's scattered breath
and heartbeat echo, sounding out
the home inside the house.

("Child's Pose (balsana)")

This poem works the idea of "taking a pose," or "performance" on so many levels; the child's posturing is at once an act of reflection, creation, and, most important, resistance, a way of taking in, but also posturing against the architecture of the larger world—the pose becomes a way of distinguishing the self, but also a means by which the self attempts to contain the world:

Your trunk is watching, listening, and breathing through
the wavering steeple where the wheeling bats move.

Something's leaning hard on something else tonight,
a flat food on a thigh until the slingshot moves.

I always thought that balance was a work of will,
but I fall out of tree post most by trying not to move.

Bones and wood make chapels stand, cathedrals reach.
The nave is the navel that my breathing moves.

("Ghazal: Tree Post (vrksasana)")

This practice is rigorous and also vulnerable because it pushes the speaker into a closer, more responsive, and more reflective consideration of life and its questions, its unfolding mysteries—and one mystery of life is quite simply its pain:

Every tongue awaits the boy.

Every body is a word.

Every word a possibility.

Grant the open wound
its correspondence to
some mystery unfolded.

("First Communion")

Mystery is also important in this collection in another way. From the early drinking poems to the poems about yoga, the speaker is intensely concerned with mapping female subjectivity. Poem after poem considers how this subjectivity is posed or positioned in the world as it is. McGrath Smith presents us, in turn, a snapshot of herself as a child—eager to convince her father she can throw like a boy, a young woman dressing up as if in armor for happy hour, a nursing mother conscious of becoming ever more vessel-like. These poems and others present images of girls and women posing, assuming poses, being posed, while all the while suggesting the insufficiency of the modes of expression available to the female voice, the female consciousness. In her images of taking or attempting to replicate a pose, McGrath Smith underlines how loaded the self-definition of the female self can be. Girlhood is perhaps the most consistent experience considered here—or how girls become woman, are made girls or made woman, are "posed" to be "recognizable" as woman, and what this does to the consciousness of the female subject:

Face-down and lying on your fist; the king is calling,
you must go and please the king. Very young
and dying on your fist. Tears in your eyes.
Where did you learn about the ways
the kings commanded?
                        What is this shuddering about?

("The Locust: A Foundational Narrative.")

The effort to trace, reclaim, recover or recover into a true female subjectivity is a central part of McGrath Smith's story of addiction, obsession, and disciplined practice.

In "The Locust: A Foundational Narrative," the masterful long prose-in-many-places lyric that opens Nobody's Jackknife, McGrath Smith sets out the image systems and thematic concerns that will drive the collection as a whole. The poem is a memoir in verse form—tracing the landscape of her childhood. We see her father after working a double-shift, not dead but not ready to wake, his love of baseball, pride in his sons, uneasy tenderness for the daughter he subconsciously dismisses. We see a hill "broken by electric teeth," a next door yard that becomes a forest because of the neighbor son's "involvement with rugs," We see the verdant alleys, tin cans, stray dogs, and pools of grease in garages. We see her mother and learn about this mother through a yoga book in which McGrath Smith finds the locust pose and in trying to do it learns something about the female body and its positioning:

I try it again and again, and cry
because my body fails to hear the brain's
commands. Inert and facedown,
I try it again and again—full locust—
join my hands below my pelvis, push them
down like a lever. Still, my lower body
doesn't rise, which means I cannot fly.

The poem is a piece of history, of autobiography, that takes on the dimensions of myth. The locust pose becomes conflated with a meditation on the life cycle of the locust itself, whose subterranean birthing echoes what for McGrath Smith is the silenced or subterranean truth of girls—the sense of a female voice as under pressure—muffled, deflected; yet ever patiently waiting to be born:

…the poem wants to turn back to nature, and explain, or
run away from itself and its subject. Of course, they drill deep holes into
the ground. Of course, the hatchlings go in there, and many years go by.
No doubt they are like violins submerged in water.

Summer when it's under siege.

("The Locust: A Foundational Narrative.")

This opening poem sets up the collection as a deeply feminist story, a story for girls, a coming-of-age saga There have not—perhaps we can agree—been enough true "coming of age," stories written for or by woman, ones that track the full span, mystery, and rage of female consciousness, or its fraught condition in the world as it—not to mention its possible creations in the world as it might be. In Nobody's Jackknife, we have such a story, a collection of individual poems so finely made, so cognizant of the mysteries of experience, so intent on valuably considering and engaging with these mysteries that they bear rereading and rereading. The second time I read through this work, I found myself almost unbearably moved by McGrath Smith's will to trace the becoming of a self, and her attentiveness to every lost detail, which she burnishes and brings forth anew. This is a brave and beautiful book.

Title: Nobody's Jackknife
Author: Ellen McGrath Smith
Publisher: West End Press
Publication Date: 2015


Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone, Love/Iraq and Wen Kroy, which one the orphic prize in poetry. She co-edited with Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. She has received the Frost-Pellicer Frontera Aware and was a 2012 Witter Bynner Fellow selected by Philip Levine.