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Story Problems by Charles Jensen

Source: the poet
Paperback, 39 pgs.
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Story Problems: Poems by Charles Jensen, the winner of 2017 Palooka Press Chapbook Contest, is a chapbook written in a composition exam book style, complete with prose and sample questions for the reader. It’s interactive like all forms of poetry, seeking the readers’ input and self-analysis or even quirky responses to strange questions.

I remember these composition exam books fondly (I’m probably the only one) because I could write out my answers as completely as I wanted and there was no anxiety of speaking in front of the class in a presentation format. There also wasn’t the dreaded multiple choice, on which I always second guessed my answers and changed them, inevitably, to the wrong one.

Jensen’s perspective on grief and loss is as infinite as the universe. Imaging an “Origin Myth” of yourself and then the loss of a parent, how could someone so small in comparison to the rest of the universe contain an entire universe? But isn’t it true that our family is often a universe to us and when it disappears through death or other means, we are drifting and empty?

From “2. The Water Cycle” (pg. 7)

“Breath and words a latticework of ruin.”

From “6. Journey to the Center of the Earth” (pg. 11)

“I told people later grief is the absence of hope, but even then I knew it wasn’t true. Grief is when you have hope, and then hope leaves you.”

From “14. Temporary Death” (pg. 19)

“To watch a loved one breathe out without breathing in makes you stop breathing. There’s a long moment that follows in which no one watching is really alive.”

The prose poems are only as complex as the reader who reads them. With its simple language and in some cases platitudes we’ve all heard before, Jensen is able to pull forth the more existential questions self-actualizing humans find harder to deal with and answer. In this composition exam, the reader is asked to dig deeper into what they know of themselves, their religion, their whiteness, their losses and more to see not only the futility of some of our actions but also how identity is a construct that very few of us understand. He leaps from the broader universality of the human condition to the immediate “you” that we are trapped inside with his probing questions and fanciful instructions.

Story Problems: Poems by Charles Jensen is a chapbook with unending possibilities for the reader.  Self-examination and world examination at its best.  Jensen is becoming one of my favorite poets.  His work is unique and universal, but it also challenges the reader to become more than the passive observer.

RATING: Cinquain

Photo: Philip Pirolo

About the Author:

Charles Jensen is the author of six chapbooks of poems, including the recent Story Problems and Breakup/Breakdown, and The First Risk, which was a finalist for the 2010 Lambda Literary Award. His previous chapbooks include Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press, 2007). A past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, Field, The Journal, New England Review, and Prairie Schooner. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis. He lives in Los Angeles.

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    This sounds like a fantastic collection. I have fond memories of those blue comp books, too! Lol

  • Suko http://www.sukosnotebook

    Do all contemporary poetry collections have such creative covers? I remember these composition books, too, although not as fondly as you; or some reason they made me feel a bit anxious. This poetry collection sounds thoughtful and thought-provoking. Excellent review!

    • You’ll have to buy a copy (it really is a steal for ecopy and/or print). I love that these contemporary poets have awesome covers for their books.