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The Character
By Jena Osman
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. $15, paper

Reviewed by Sheila Bender

July/August 2000

Each year since 1986, an accomplished woman poet has selected a poetry manuscript by an emerging woman poet for the Barnard New Women Poets Prize, which includes publication by Beacon Press. Poet Lyn Hejinian chose Jena Osman's The Character for publication in 1999. In her introduction to Osman's book, Hejinian describes Osman as "engaged in the irreverent task of perpetual self-invention." Osman, she adds, is interested in "performativity," and the opening poem in the book is "a tour de force which embodies its own performance, carrying on at various levels, and most obviously through intertextual devices (quotations from and/or allusions to other texts) and through footnoted footnotes, a dialogue in and of itself."

I always like a good play, so I began Osman's book with enthusiasm. Alas, I found nothing moving in the so-called performance or self-invention on these pages, only cerebral staging and ideas unconnected to bodily experience.

Perhaps Hejinian's use of the word "irreverent" should have tipped me off: most poetry even if it at first appears irreverent because of its topic or diction, stands in awe of human nature, the human spirit, the natural, and the divine. Whether a poet speaks through the persona of a murderer, a celebrity, or a man angry about his father's dying, he or she speaks to evoke the moment where spirit rushes in and says, "No matter what, I am living, questioning, experiencing, feeling; I'm alive in the world with all its imperfection and mystery." Sadly, in Osman's work, I experience no mystery--or desire, joy, or sorrow.

But here is more irreverence, Osman-style, from the prose poem "Invention," which appears mid-book:

Together and never alone, eventually to cast out your eye, how you use it. Human weight is the measure of all that duplicity and theft. I picture that it happens and therefore it has. The picturing, as mentioned above, is much slower, the more luxurious side of the project. A wealth of opportunity leading to the back of the mouth tightly. Cold storage.
Cold storage in the back of the mouth? Human weight the measure of duplicity and theft? My mouth is warm. Weights vary--are we more duplicitous the more we weigh? How do I skim meaning from this odd broth?

On the book's last page, in a prose poem called "III) Conscious Text," Osman writes:

The man is beaten and seen as fitting into some order. He has become dead in his attempts to stand, incapable of affectation. The mouths of the police claim the man was subject to affectation. According to Kleist the moment when all have attained the perfect grace of the dead text, the unself-consciousness of the puppet, is the end of the world.
If this paragraph came up in one of my writing classes, I'd tell the person who wrote it to brainstorm or free-write to find more details, more images, more about what he or she is reaching for with these words. I believe the poet's job is not only to offer a performance but a seamless one, not only to offer a voice but one I can identify and understand. I believe the poet's job is to call up experience, help me question it and partake of its mystery, then set my feet back down in such a way that I can remember where I've been. Unhappily, in Jena Osman's work, I don't get what I come to poetry for.

Hejinian writes that Osman's work has "ethical density, political ambiguity, shifting subjectivity, multifold social terrains, multicultural identities and interrelations." I wish! If turning the pages exaggeratedly could give us these things, we wouldn't need poets, just paper.

Sheila Bender's new collection of poems is Sustenance (Daniel and Daniel).

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