Miriam Pellman Maust

The Conrad Grebel Review 19, no. 2 (Spring 2001)

Jean Janzen, Tasting the Dust. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2000

The title of Jean Janzen's fifth collection of poetry, Tasting the Dust, reminds me of a night I spent in a leaky southwestern motel during a dust storm. Tasting that dust was elemental, mysterious, and a little unsettling. Reading Janzen's poems elicits some similar sensations for me.

Her poems are grouped around four "windows" of direction - south, north, east, west. Each section is introduced by a poem in response to four Vermeer paintings of interiors, each with a woman in some household activity. A wonderful conceit, this structure provides ways of looking at our contained lives through the suffusion of varied yet specific light. The poems, ranging in settings from the poet's home in California to exotic places like Baku, are riffs on the incarnation experienced. These incarnate poems begin with the imagery of dust and mountains in the area of the poet's home, where "it takes dynamite to plant an orange tree." I find most captivating this section celebrating both the upheaval and stasis of nature. In arresting motion Janzen looks at the rotting oranges under the tree, the astringent pomegranate to be tasted, the mountain's snow water to be drunk.

Some poems sf the north may be reflective of Janzen's early life in Canada. Full of memories of brothers, sisters, and parents, she alludes to "markings" - those childhood treasures kept in school booklets, those desires to please the elders' request for perfection, those memories of the bear at the tent.

Then there are the painting "readings," the author's reflections on Europe, the east. The great canvasses depicting events in the life of Christ are read from an imagined moment of captured motion. Some of these poems touch on the poet's familial history of torture in Europe. Some were written during her months spent there after winning the prestigious Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Finally, the poems of the west return to the meaning of those dear to us at home -the elemental things that taste like grit, the mysterious unseen that remains open to the senses, the forces moving ground that scare us a little. The touching poem of married love ("Tasting the Dust"), the physician husband "curing himself with soil" in his garden, concludes:

the story of dust, an origin
so deep and dense, it rose
like fire to make the mountain,

a narrative of tumble
and breakage from its sides, ...
The mountain offering itself...
for his spade, his touch,
to make of it a shape and fragrance,
to taste the center of this earth. (66,67)

Reading these rich poems that converse with us will reward both the inveterate and casual poetry reader. We all how the nuisance of dust; the transforming properties of these particles are ours, too. The poet suggests the cultivation of an other-worldly soil, dynamiting for the planting of fruit if necessary.