Little Boy Blue by Gray Jacobik.
(CavanKerry Press, 2010 / $16, paper
Reviewed by Ruth Foley
It is, at first, incredibly difficult to give Gray Jacobik’s Little Boy Blue the time it deserves. One long poem separated into a series of “movements,” this “memoir in verse” about a mother’s relationship with her bipolar son shatters any lingering definitions of confessional poetry or memoir, going beyond both to create a book that is stronger than either genre alone usually produces. Because of this, and because of the narrative drive of the memoir, the desire to find out what happens can override the urge to sit with a movement for a moment, to re-read, to wonder. If you are impatient as I am, you’ll give in to the impulse and fly through the book in a single sitting. This is not necessarily a mistake—once you reach the twenty-third and final movement, you will likely feel compelled to begin again, and the second time through, you’ll be able to do the poem justice.
This is an exceedingly brave book, not because of the themes it investigates—psychological illness, fractured relationships, unprepared/unwilling parents, abandonment, and the tremendous amount of damage we are able to inflict upon each other to name a few—but because of Jacobik’s determination to avoid easy answers. There are no conscience-soothing reunions in this poem, no false-ringing homecomings, no contrived sense that all will be well. Instead, she navigates the treacherous waters of the messy, complicated, sometimes ugly details of her life, and she does so in the same way human beings attempt to make sense of things, moving from association to association and theme to theme instead of in a steady chronological line. In movement eleven, she chronicles the failed reunion of her son with his long-absent birth father, a failure based on nothing more dramatic than a lack of any connection beyond the genetic. In movement fourteen, she tells the story of finding a home for unwed mothers in which to give birth. In movement five, she lists the seventeen ways her son’s girlfriend claims Jacobik has abandoned him, opening the poem with the specific accusations, but ending with the acknowledgment that seventeen is hardly a beginning. And, she admits, “That’s putting it simply & it wasn’t simple.” The poet’s job is to tug at the threads at the edges of the cloth, untangling the weave until it becomes something we can understand. Jacobik gets away with admitting this particular shortcoming in description because she is at a point where there are, for the moment, no more explanations (although she then creates eighteen more movements of explanations).
It is possible, I suppose, to construct a chronological order for these poems, to go searching for the direct narrative line, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When we get to the final movement of the poem, it feels inevitable. It is perhaps the movement most of Jacobik’s readers would recognize—the artist’s brush stroke forming each line, each nuance carefully layered—but it is also the inevitable conclusion to the poem. In it, we can sense the threads being woven back together into something a little like resignation, a little like forgiveness, a little like acceptance. The result isn’t clean or smooth, and that is where it—and the entire book—gets its credibility. She lists the complexities of compassion “for the self by the self…/…for the girl who was who is not now a child / for the girl who was a mother [who is always a mother].” There is no redemption here; there is simply compassion and acceptance. We could do much worse.