I am in awe of poets.
Poetry has a mystical quality to me. It’s so immediate and direct – paragraphs of prose metaphor boiled down and simmered into a reduction of thought and expression as colorful as it is delicious. And no meal I’ve had lately has provided more food for thought than Charles Jensen’s incredible collection of poetry, “The First Risk.”
“The First Risk” is broken down into four sections. The first deals with the death of Matthew Shepard as well as impressions of the painting “Death of Adonis” by the Italian Renaissance painter Luca Cambiaso. The second sequence is voiced by the women of director Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother,” the third deals with love and obsession in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and the final piece is a verse novella called “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon,” about a physicist’s search for his lost wife.
The Matthew Shepard poems are stark, vivid and deeply moving, particularly “I Am the Boy Who Is Tied Down” and the title piece of this section, “Safe.” The alternating poems about Venus discovering the body of Adonis provide a compelling ancient counterpoint to the modern tragedy, parallelling Matthew Shepard’s death it as it provides a sense of relief from its immediacy. I can’t get away without quoting a bit from “Safe”:
“How can we live with this knowledge
that he struggled, that he knew they would kill him,
that he begged anyway
that they laughed
and bought cigarettes with his pocket change
I was twenty-one. It was autumn.
How are we to live
in this cage of knowing.”
If chills aren’t running down your spine, you’d better be checking your central nervous system.
Jensen’s work is informed by the cinema, from the Almodovar-inspired pieces that comprise “City of the Sad Divas” to the “Vertigo” poems as well as the verse novella. The last two sections alternate exposition with illustration, much like the films of Kurosawa and Sergio Leone – beautiful, brilliant and heady yet totally accessible. Kudos also go to Toby Johnson, whose book design is an integral component of this incredible whole.
“The First Risk” is an absolute wonder and leaves me right where I started this post – in awe. Buy a copy and join me.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler