By Amanda Jernigan
The word “groundwork” usually refers to a preliminary task, as in “laying the groundwork” for some further endeavour. It’s a good title then for Amanda Jernigan’s first book, as well as a signal of that book’s thematic concerns. In three sections dealing respectively with an archaeological dig in Tunisia, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and Homer’s Odyssey, Jernigan grounds her own work in classical beginnings while provocatively flipping traditional myths of origins on their head.
Taking a step back (and I apologize for how abstract this paragraph is going to sound), we can think of any myth of beginnings as having two axes: left-right temporal (something comes first and then something else happens later), and up-down hierarchical (something more advanced is built on a previous established foundation). In addition, myths come in two dimensions: personal and social. So, for example, Rousseau has man born free in a state of nature only to fall into chains, which describes both what happens to the individual and to civilizations. That the movement up the mythic ladder is experienced as a fall was the essence of the Romantic revolution in thought, which associated “lower” levels of nature and the unsocialized mind (Blake’s Orc, and later Freud’s Id) with creative genius while the upper reaches of the tower represented unnecessary and oppressive accretions.
Whether you want to privilege nature or culture, the Id or the Superego, the basic picture of the former being prior to the latter is pretty straightforward. Also obvious is the notion that, no matter how empty a tower may be at the top, it has to be built on something. The foul rag-and-bone shop is where the ladder starts, not where it ends up.
This is, however, exactly the mythic map that Groundwork undermines. The opening poem, “The Night Guard,” introduces us to the new terms of reference. An excavation of ancient ruins becomes a metaphor: nature is no longer the groundwork but rather the overgrowth. Cattle are cleared away and topsoil removed from the site in order to lay bare (moving from the social to the individual dimension) “the structure of your thinking.” In turn, what we find underneath is not some wild and uncultivated Eden, or the roiling lava of subconscious thought, but the detritus of earlier civilizations and the fragments of myth that nature itself has made a palimpsest of.
I find this a very contemporary way of thinking. Nature (at least as writers in the Romantic tradition like Rousseau or Wordsworth would have understood and experienced it) has largely disappeared from modern life on both the public and the personal level. How many of us have memories – memories that would have been shared by most of us just a couple of generations ago – of growing up on a farm? Such a prehistory is no longer part of our personal or collective unconscious. Instead, nature (in the form of “the environment”) is something to be reclaimed – more a vision of a sustainable green future than a past state of innocence we are trying to “get back” to. This is the sort of thing Jernigan finds among the ancient walls of Carthage, where the “living have quarried the bricks of the dead,” leaving bare-armed men planting tomatoes in the ruins. “Any why not?” one poem asks. “One can’t eat art,” another answers.
I wouldn’t want to lean on this reading too heavily, but it’s consistent with the imagery employed throughout much of the book. In the second and third sections we move from tesserae to more familiar cultural fragments, but the same language of a reverse movement from cultural base to natural overgrowth is used. After the dismissal of Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden is scarcely recognizable as a garden, the vineyards and orchards untended, the rivers left to pursue a natural course. In “The Birds of Paradise,” “the water in which we bathe / is less than pure” because it has been poisoned by a factory upstream, where Yeats’s singing bird is now being manufactured out of polyvinyl chloride. From a whale’s perspective, “fifty fathoms deep,” icebergs are “upside-down basilicas.” When Odysseus finds his men transformed into pigs he thinks them none the worse for that. Art isn’t about progress.
In his early novels Don DeLillo liked to make the point that the subconscious mind, the inner reptile brain, isn’t a natural structure any more but one colonized by advertising jingles and other ephemeral bits and pieces of pop culture. Jernigan’s fragments are more elevated – she’s deeply (at times almost too deeply) allusive, even within individual poems – but I think she’s making a similar point about our collective mental groundwork. The structure of our thinking has nothing left in it of nature.
All of this might make Groundwork sound like a bit too much of an intellectual exercise, but I’ve only offered one reading and in any event it doesn’t play as dry as I’ve made it sound. Jernigan is more into rhyme than rhetoric, and handles form skillfully and with a light touch throughout. The poem “Islands” is a good example, with stanzas that spread out as aural rings of puns and homophones. On such a foundation a rich “overground” is built, an airy garden over the horizon line waiting to be mined.
Review first published online May 14, 2012.