‘Days of Shame and Failure’ by Jennifer L. Knox
“I envy anything that moves itself to accommodate another”
Knox’s fourth collection reads like the best comedy: keenly observant, darkly aware, and perfectly timed. Her humor—absurd, satirical, and everything in between—points out our fallibility and fragility (in aging and death) without ever taking itself too seriously. Take, by example, these lines from “Henry Mancini: Now there was an Entertainer:” “Some poets think their feelings are more special than regular people. If anything we’re handicapped by them.” Shame and Failure dives into its characters’ psyches to reveal the parts of us that hurt, laugh, and eat donut holes while watching sci-fi shows and dreaming of miniature ponies. It asks us to examine our life, our society, and our perception of reality. At times it feels like being in a reality TV show, a mockumentary, or video game; at others, like having a conversation with a good friend in Superman underwear before a pillow fight. This book does what the best hipster jeans do—it shoves everything into a small space without ever looking like it’s trying.
The first movement takes place in a post-apocalyptic world:
This poem is harbinger of the aging process in which the speaker begins to gradually diminish like the three mighty rivers. That wry, prophetic register continues in “I Want to Speak with the Manager:”
Here I can only think of Homer Simpson’s it’s funny because it’s true—not merely true to life, but also emblematic of Knox’s ability to make fun of herself. This poem is not a victim of old age; rather, Knox becomes the comedian who makes you realize how silly you were for not seeing the hilarity right in front of your face in the first place. The aging theme continues in “Nature is Changing Me:”
Turned to prey, the speaker is weakened by change and transformed to something quiet that seeks protection, as the previous poem’s river weakened to a dribble. However, the poems themselves do not mumble: they annunciate. The language in Shame and Failure is alive like “psyched/thriving mold,” but death is always just around the corner. This shows up most literally during the speaker’s encounter with a horse in“The Kensington Stables:”
I found this passage one of the most devastating in the book. Here, the reader is forced to confront death directly—the reality, the loss of agency—in the image of a once-mighty horse reduced to pink glittery nails and sticky hands. Is that what it comes down to, the speaker asks? Is death that twee? It’s easy to feel like the horse.
Knox may poke fun, but she is also generous, empathetic, and radically inclusive. “Hive Mind” talks about her mother’s OCD in a carseat scene, both of them “locked in the dust-mote mottled skies of our own minds, counting things.” The poem ends with Knox acknowledging our interconnectivity and the complexity of love:
Here we have a signature Knox turn: the sunflowers do not accommodate each other selflessly, out of love; they do it to survive. And so a moment that borders the sentimental takes on a darker hue. Compare “A Fairy Tale,” in which a father deceives his nine-year-old into having his tonsils removed with a promise of a circus trip—the reader questions the ideas of love, intent, and disclosure, each inflected with Knox’s characteristically grim take.
And with immediacy, an affect that yanks us back to earlier poems like “The New Let’s Make a Deal,” the collection’s first. A woman, given the choice between a bright pink bow-tied box or the unknown thing behind curtain #3, chooses the curtain (good: the box had a ham). “Wayne takes a bite to prove the meat’s really real and the audience goes totes bonkers.” This summarizes the reading experience pretty well. The turns and surprises, the humor and clarity are hard to believe, and you need to sink your teeth in to even prove they’re real, but the payoff is worthy of a standing ovation. You may not know exactly how you feel at the end of Days of Shame and Failure, but “whatever it is, it’s a real, really felt feeling.”