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Ordinary Miracles by Erica Jong

Ordinary Miracles by Erica Jong begins with an introduction by the poet herself in which she talks about how poems have become “the stepchild of American letters,” especially since the novel has become so popular.  She further goes on to discuss the duality of being a poet and a novelist and how it is often considered “promiscuous.”  She has thrown those adjectives aside to embrace her duality and to make the most of both genres, with the themes of one informing and flourishing in the other.  “I am always hoping that someone will recognize the poet and novelist as two aspects of the same soul — but alas, the genres are reviewed by two different groups of people, so no one ever seems to notice this in print,” she says.  (page xvi)  It’s funny that she would have this concern in the 1980s, and I wonder what she would think about blogs today that review both novels and poetry.

Erica Jong’s collection is broken into four parts: Fetal Heartbeat; The Breath Inside the Breath; The Heart, The Child, The World; Straw in the Fire.  From these section titles alone, readers can tell that the poems are likely to generate an arc from birth to death.

Jong’s narrator examines what it means to be a mother, the trepidation that comes with, and the joys that are discovered as the child enters the world and grows up questioning the world around them.  More than that, there is a circle of birth-life-death that Jong refers to and wonders about, working back from her advanced years to her childhood.  From “Poem for Molly’s Fortieth Birthday” (page 23-6), “Now,/I begin/unraveling/the sleeves/of care/that have/stitched up/this brow,/unraveling/the threads/that have kept/me scared,/as I pranced/over the world,/seemingly fearless,/working/without a net,/”

The second section tackles the trials of living, embarking on new aspects of our lives and the moment in which we straddle the past and future.  The indecision, the drawing back, the confusion, and the final moment the decision is made.  The narrator is on the precipice of decisions and movements through life.  From “This Element” (page 39), “Looking for a place/where we might turn off/the inner dialogue,/the monologue/of futures & regrets,/of pasts not past enough/& futures that may never come/to pass,/”

In the smallest of the sections — three — presents the grittiness of life — the love and loss and the pain and joy — but much of this is written bitterly or ironically.  Jong uses simple language and images to demonstrate these emotions without clearly carving out each situation that gave way to those emotions.  Her lines are short and clipped, drawing from that additional emotional power.  On page 55 from “Letter to my Lover After Seven Years,” “Now we have died/into the limbo of lost loves,/that wreckage of memories/tarnishing with time,/that litany of losses/which grows longer with the years,/as more of our friends/descend underground/& the list of our loved dead/outstrips the list of the living.//”

In the final part of the book, the anger, bitterness, and frankness are all that is left as the scars have bored into the narrator and the fluttery, flowery ideas of birth have been completely worn away, leaving only a bristly exterior and nearly empty interior.  In this way, the final section is not a closing of the circle, but it could be if the opening of the circle was ill-perceived.

Ordinary Miracles by Erica Jong takes a look at life from a female point of view — a poet who is derailed and tainted by love and childbirth, who thinks she may have been better off remaining untainted as a way to create the best work.  Whether this interpretation is correct is up to each reader, especially given that many of the poems also illustrate the hidden joys of childbirth and life — the hope that comes with each, a hope that things will be different.  However, readers may cringe at some of the word choices and language used in some of the poems to describe the anatomy of men and the act of sex.  The poet may have chosen the words to provide shock value, and make a point about perspective once relationships fail.  The collection examines the ordinary in an attempt to show readers how miraculous those moments are, but the effort falls short on some occasions.  Overall, the collection will have you talking with book clubs and friends for a long time as it raises issues about relationships and motherhood.

About the Poet (from her Website):

Erica Jong—novelist, poet, and essayist—has consistently used her craft to help provide women with a powerful and rational voice in forging a feminist consciousness. She has published 20 books, including eight novels, six volumes of poetry, six books of non-fiction and numerous articles in magazines and newspapers such as the New York Times, the Sunday Times of London, Elle, Vogue and the New York Times Book Review.

Erica Jong lives in New York City and Weston, CT with her husband, attorney Ken Burrows, and standard poodle, Belinda Barkowitz.  Her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, is also a writer.

 

 

This is my 25th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

This is my 16th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

  • I am ashamed to admit I had no idea Erica Jong was a poet! I know her fiction and read her non-fiction on Henry Miller but this totally escaped me. Thank you for highlighting her book — both the poems and her thoughts at the beginning sound fascinating — I must find this book!

  • Beth Hoffman

    Beautifully written review, Serena! I am quite interested in reading this.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the review. Jong has a new book coming out, though it is not poetry.

  • I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Erica Jong’s latest book during BookExpo, but haven’t read this one.

    • I am waiting for her new book to arrive in the mail. I figured I would review some of her poetry before I tackle the new book. Thanks for stopping by.

  • I found her take on poetry fascinating and think she’s probably right. This probably isn’t for me, though.

    • I don’t think this collection is for everyone, but there are some good poems in it that are easily accessible to many readers.

  • This sounds like an interesting collection. I’m kind of scared about the sexual word choices. I have a major problem with those in romance novels, LOL.

    • There are just some straight “health class” type references, but then there are more “crass” word choices depending on the tone of the poem.