Sunday, February 11, 2024

IT BEGAN, by Michael Jemal

 

IT BEGAN, Michael Jemal. Blue Light Press, 2024, 15 pages, paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com

 

Poetry chapbooks are intended to be small jewels, each poem a facet of material cut from the same slab of language, reflecting light from a slightly different perspective. At times, poems find their way into the manuscript because they are favorites of the poet or because the poet doesn’t have enough material on the main theme to flesh out the book. Not so with It Began by Michael Jemal. Each poem not only begins with the anaphora “It began…” but the “it” that is introduced at the beginning of each poem becomes a Rorschach test, interpreted by each reader according their background—in their living, their reading, and—if a writer—their own work.  

As a poet, as well as a reader, I find that each poem can be an ars poetica—a poem about poetry itself—as well as a poem about love—love for writing or any other life-changing endeavor, or love for a person. Thus, in the Prologue, the first line can become “[writing poetry] began when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot / and you broke / into a million excuses.” It can just as easily become [Our relationship began] when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot…” This first stanza develops themes of both love and writing so that the final stanza yields a conclusion to either one: “I have so many stories in my pocket / I need to unwind. / Have you ever seen / inside the body / of a meaningful thought. / There are so many shades of despair, / I’m almost ready to shout.”

            The tight focus of “It began” that begins each poem also allows for a capaciousness of subject matter, but the poems themselves provide cues for what each “it” may be without intruding into the reader’s private interpretations and by never closing a poem in a neat, tidy bow, but rather always leaving room for mystery. “It Began 1,” for example, ends with “There was no way to know / when I opened the door to the bathroom / and stood in front of [a] mirror / I would wonder / who was looking at me.” “It Began 9,” beginning with “It began after the divorce,” ends with “Different people do different things. / Take anything you want, take it all I say. / We are what we don’t throw away,” once again leaving the poem open at the end. And in “Epilogue” (“It began when I went to the mailbox”) the poem ends with “Inside the envelope sheets of blank copy paper / stapled together / as if it were a novella I needed / to meditate on, / rethink the characters / and keep track of their frailties. / Characters who needed to find /their own way to the epilogue / despite how lost they were. / That much I am certain,” leaves a wide bandwidth on the dial of what the narrator is not certain.

            The power of these poems lies, in part, with the reader’s expectations being subverted by their enjambments and unlikely pairings of words—in the case of “Prologue,” adjectives with nouns, and verbs with objects of prepositions.

            It began when I accidentally

            stepped on your left foot

            and you broke

            into a million excuses.

 

            Breaking (pun intended) line three after “broke” is a gesture that changes everything in the poem and puts the reader off-guard for the remainder of the poem after reading the line “into a million excuses.” The next couplet does not disappoint with “What good is love without a few / hazard lights flashing.” Later, the lover morphs into the writer with:

            I’ve been patching myself together

            for years.

            I’m brand new.

 

            If I put on my best pants

            will you dance with me tonight.

            I have so many stories in my pocket

            I need to unwind.

            Have you ever seen

            inside the body

            of a meaningful thought.

            There are so many shades of despair,

            I’m almost ready to shout.

            The entire book’s structure can be said to alternate between language either more conducive to love or to writing, without squeezing out the possibility of the other—both in poem order and in the order of stanzas within the poem. Poems 4 through 9, e.g., are ostensibly about love, beginning with the opening lines “It began as a nightmare / When every time I tried to whisper / into the ear of the woman beside me / wisteria leaves flew out my mouth” and concluding with these final lines from “It Began 9” about divorce:

            What’s worse than being told

            you are not loved.

            It’s like falling to the ground

            after you’re already on the ground

            or giving up your wants

            to hold onto everything you’ve ever wanted.

            Different people do different things.

            Take anything you want, take it all I say.

            We are what we don’t throw away.

After this series of poems about love, we have the following opening lines to “It Began 10”:

            It began when I received

            a postcard from myself

            “There are no miracles” it read,

            “without strings attached.”

Poems 11, 12, and 13 (Epilogue) continue this theme of writing after the divorce with lines such as “It began when I accidentally / walked into a room full of strangers / who used bandaids for hatchet wounds” (from “It Began 11”); “…I’ve promised myself I’d change, / become a better man. / Someone who will consider / experiences as an irreplaceable / puzzle piece to his life. / A man with a dependable door / on the back of his head / that won’t easily open…;” and finally in the epilogue, a return to interpretation that can easily hold both writing and love and any other thing that one might be passionate about:

            Epilogue

            It began when I went to the mailbox

            and found a manila envelope from you.

            How did you find me, I gave up

            my name years ago

            when it was still possible to become yourself,

            despite the many disappointments.

 

            Inside the envelope

            sheets of blank copy paper

            stapled together

            as if it were a novella I needed

            to meditate on,

            rethink the characters

            and keep track of their frailties.

            Characters who needed to find

            their own way to the epilogue

            despite how lost they were.

            That much I am certain.

 

            It Began is indeed a tiny jewel box of glimmering poems that not only please but make us want more. We can only hope that this chapbook is true sample of what is to come from this poet whose poems are rendered with perfect timing and a voice we can immediately trust—that future readers will write about Michael Jemal’s work — “It began” with a small chapbook that was the beginning of a poet’s significant contribution to the canon of 21st century poetry.