A Yes-or-No Answer
by Jane Shore
Houghton Mifflin 2008
Reviewed by Christie Ann Reynolds
Worst Title Ever
In Jane Shore’s A Yes-Or-No Answer, there are the usual Greek references: (“I saw my girl—Persephone carried off to Hell / who left behind a mash of petals on the trampled soil.”) There are the predictable religious undertones (see: “Gelato, Scrabble in Heaven, Body and Soul”).
Here also lie the predictable mother-father-aunt-and-uncle mourning poems anyone of middle age with a lack of contemporary vibrancy would write. There are coming-of-age daughter poems (“My Daughter Reads My Old Diary”), and poems that reminisce over a childhood dummy doll.
Every poem is honest and clean, the lines broken deliberately. But what Shore’s latest book lacks is…anything extraordinary. The boom. The spark. In A Yes-Or-No Answer, you might say the lighting rod has been popped from the roof and buried in the backyard.
In an entire book of poems about family and childhood memories, I expected something more astonishing than the only moment I recall vividly:
Aunt Sadie frowned.
“What do you need all that hair for?”
She jumped up, yanked open a drawer,
she lopped off my ponytail
in one big hank, the rubber band
still holding it together.
It lay coiled on the floor.
Mine. Not mine.
She made me pick it up
and throw it in the trash.
The poems are gravestones and recipe cards for a mother and daughter who do not want to forget the commonplace intricacies in anyone’s length of life. But they appear too commonplace. There is nothing to uncover about the speaker that isn’t already understood by the first two poems. You might argue that there’s some maternal wisdom in these poem, but it’s not what I would call the impressive wisdom you see in books like The Shout by Simon Armitage. The opening poem in Armitage’s book involves a childhood friend who committed suicide. The first two stanzas introduce us to the speaker and his playmate and the irony of being a curious child:
We went out
in the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face
I don’t remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice”
he had to shout for all he was worth
The last two lines imbue us with a thought-provoking echo:
He left town, went on to be twenty years dead
with a gunshot hole
in the roof of his mouth, in Western Australia.
Boy with the name and face I don’t remember,
you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you.
It’s the kind of romantic catharsis that never quite washes up in Shore’s work. For weeks, I’ve been waiting for A Yes-or-No Answer to redeem itself. I’ve read it over and over. I’ve put it away for some time, hoping to coerce some fresh dust to settle favorably in the crevices in my brain. I honestly and truly attempted to like this collection. But I couldn’t help coming to the realization that my grandmother would probably place this book on a shelf under Mitch Albom’s (vastly superior) The Five People You Meet in Heaven. She may make a few recommendations to her coworkers or even suggest that I, as her granddaughter, read it to accumulate some appreciation for the elderly. My grandmother would also smile when Shore writes:
Putting on my socks, I noticed,
on my right foot, an ugly bunion and hammertoes.
How did my mother’s foot
become part of me?
I on the other hand, cringe.
Many young workshop poets use their childhood and the tired angst of their adolescence as fuel. Many poets also use their experiences as ammunition for a few soul-searching combustible poems that leave you aching in the gut. But anyone writing so complacently about him-/herself had better have one damned impressive and odd life, have the capacity to lie well about their life, or have the ability to make the ordinary seem wondrous. David Orr once wrote:
“And in poems, autobiographical information serves the same purpose as references to birch trees or happiness or Subarus—all are simply ways of creating the experiences we desire from lyric poetry. The real question, therefore, isn’t what kind of life we’re being shown in a particular collection, but what kind of writing.”
What I want when I read this kind of writing is to be in AWE—preferably by both content and style. Consequently, any writer lowers the bar when they begin writing about an old address book of their parents’ and surprise, surprise, recall specific entries and where they’ve moved:
cousins once removed,
whose cheeks I kissed,
whose food I ate,
are in this book still
alive, immortal, each
by a face:
Fogel (Rose and Murray)
474 13th St. Brooklyn,
moved to a condo
in Boca Raton:
The Lifetime tv-movie “voiceover” quality is just too much. I wanted to say yes to each poem, and even considered whether or not I was too young to appreciate the kind of nostalgia that resonated here. But after reading with an open mind, I can only say that if asked to speak well of A Yes-or-No Answer, I can only give the appropriate answer of: no.