IT BEGAN, Michael Jemal. Blue Light Press, 2024, 15
pages, paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com
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
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
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.
began when I accidentally
on your left foot
a million excuses.
(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:
been patching myself together
I put on my best pants
you dance with me tonight.
have so many stories in my pocket
need to unwind.
you ever seen
a meaningful thought.
are so many shades of despair,
almost ready to shout.
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:
worse than being told
are not loved.
like falling to the ground
you’re already on the ground
giving up your wants
hold onto everything you’ve ever wanted.
people do different things.
anything you want, take it all I say.
are what we don’t throw away.
After this series of poems about
love, we have the following opening lines to “It Began 10”:
began when I received
postcard from myself
are no miracles” it read,
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:
began when I went to the mailbox
found a manila envelope from you.
did you find me, I gave up
name years ago
it was still possible to become yourself,
the many disappointments.
of blank copy paper
if it were a novella I needed
keep track of their frailties.
who needed to find
own way to the epilogue
how lost they were.
much I am certain.
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.