When writing professor Jennifer Perrine read some of her poetry tonight at Mount Mercy University, one student surprised her a little with some discerning observations—about, for example, how two of Perrine’s poems seem connected, one being a bit of a sequel to the other.
It was a connection the poet had not intended, but recognized when the student asked about it.
“You’re teaching me things,” Perrine said. “I enjoy that.”
I enjoyed Perrine teaching us some new things in her poetry reading. I like clever use of language, and I felt many of her poems contained interesting and provocative verbal juxtapositions.
She noted that she when she began writing poetry, it was often about love, and one of her poems was written to a lover who was a tooth grinder. She called that act a “meditation on the erosion of the body” and noted how “we learned to sleep with that hum of friction.”
In years of writing love poems, she noted some themes echo—one being the lover as a magician or con artist. In one poem, she said: “I trade my bones for your balm.” That’s a neat line.
One form of poetry she has explored is the “aubade,” the morning love song. “If we can’t hold back the morning, we will lean into it,” she wrote. Also, because when a lover has to face the separation of another work day there is always some regret: “We invent new languages where every word means ‘night.’”
These are just snippets of poems, I know, but I appreciate the way in which the words are layered, sounding and working together to create lyrical, interesting thoughts. I’m a strictly prose writer, so a poet has some challenge in holding my interest, but by that narrow standard, Perrine was a winner.
She also noted how, early in her writing career, she absorbed what she said was the wrong message: That a poet should not write about politics. She read from a poignant poem that spoke of her celebration of her 21st birthday in a gay bar the same day that Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming. Shepard, targeted for the killing because he was a homosexual, was himself only 21 when he died.
The poem, she noted, was partly fictional, because while she did celebrate her 21st birthday in a gay bar the day he died, she did not learn of the murder until the next day. Still, she captured the kind of shock a crowd can suffer when unexpected bad news spreads. In her imaging of a bar crowd’s reaction to the murder, a TV is turned up and the crowd falls silent: “A chorus of coughs trudges uncomfortably around the room.”
It was an interesting, enlightening night. And at the end of it, when students were asking questions, one asked her what she likes to do when she is not writing—a question that took her a little aback. “That is a good question,” she said. “Nobody ever asks me that.”
She hikes and she gardens. Well, those sound like good things, noted the man whose blog is partly called “garden.”
After the program, I returned to my office to pack some things for the ride home. As I headed outside to unlock my bike, I turned on my bike helmet headlight to see. As I was standing in the shadowy spot where the bike rack is located next to Warde Hall, I heard furtive, slightly nervous laughter.
“We thought you were a ghost,” said Mary Vermillion, English professor who was returning to Warde Hall with Perrine. “We were just talking about the paranormal.”
I’m not a ghost yet. But I would gladly play one in a Perrine poem, if it came to that. And I don’t aspire to always be normal, so I’ll take the “para” as a compliment. Somehow, it seemed like the right note to end the night on, so I hopped on my bike, partly packed with petite fours I had absconded with for my wife and daugher. I pedaled off into the night.