J. Allyn Rosser

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

J. Allyn Rosser
August 2011

Hi Aaron,

I’d like to introduce you to the work of J. Allyn Rosser by reading you this poem. It’s called

Ode (published 2010 in The Courtland Review)

At eighteen I bought you cheap: long-sleeved
navy cotton, reddish birds embroidered
at the breast. I wore you everywhere
back then – now just around the house, to bed.
Your weave contains a topical endorphin.
You fit like nothing else I own,
like nothing, only warmer, bearing me
patiently along, my hair riding you
at every length. You’ve borne so many gaffes!
Everything I should have said in one sleeve,
all I shouldn’t have tucked up the other.
How thin you’ve become, eroded by my shrugs,
reduced by the harsh indignities
of the cold-water wash, the dank floor corner,
the hasty suitcase-cram and top-drawer-stuff,
wearing thin beneath bad jokes (those birds)
that cast their shadow, weakened you
like Tinkerbell swallowing Pan’s poison –
when I’m sick I always reach for you.
So many consecutive years of germs!
There can’t be one square inch of your front panel
that hasn’t tasted wine or Haagen-Dazs.
Amazing there’s no stain. Just like my skin,
no lasting marks of weakness or woe,
mine or theirs. Until recently.
Didn’t I learn everything in you?
Italian architecture, Star Trek, Torts,
astrology, passages of Proust.
Those cool summer nights we pored over
love’s polygraph, the intimate form of you
in five languages. Remember the blast
we had, brushing up on our Hungarian?

Shirt! What must my husband think of me,
brazenly brandishing you in his bed,
livery and banner of my past –
wearing memories so tightly to my skin,
these cards so close to my chest!
How dare I? How can he share me with you?
But truly I can say you’re just a textile
in which I longed for him with other men.
Actively longed. In hope of him. I mean, right?
“Oh it’s only a shirt,” I can tell him.
Would you mind that? I want to be buried
in you, though that would be selfish.
You’ll have more life in you even then,
Shirt, I’m sure. Look at you, no holes,
okay one – but not a single seam undone.
In places you are virtually transparent:
mere airy adumbrations of elbow.

Do other women throw away their shirts,
or wear them without thinking? They must.
My best friend got married a second time
in her first wedding dress. It’s just a dress!
(Expensive.) He never saw it before!
(Had met the man only six months earlier).
It still fits me!
Do you think this had anything to do
with her second divorce? We know that dress
knew things she could never tell that husband.
Oh, remember that day in ‘77?
Even my best friend was not around.
That was when I really did want to die,
and that night you stayed on, held tight.
Shit Shirt let’s not get sentimental,
I recognize you’re just the fabric in which
I first heard the voice of Bessie Smith,
first figured out what wasn’t mine,
first learned I wanted to have a child.
Why didn’t you come to the hospital? I missed you.
Right, that was the year you didn’t fit.
Shirt! How about New Year’s, ’85?
And July of ’03, and February ’07,
not to mention just last week.
I was almost a goner again: but you
were there when I got home – got “home.”
How lightly you touched my shoulder.

Rosser’s first name is Jill, but she goes by J. Allyn (spelled A-l-l-y-n). Her last name is spelled (R-o-s-s-e-r). What I love about Rosser’s work is her authentic voice that almost lets the idea of poem disappear. She seems to be just talking. But the rhyme and half-rhyme, and the short, generally four-stress lines, make a container for the words even when we don’t notice.

Rosser is a smart thinker, too. I want to quote part of what she has to say about writing from the 2010 Georgia Review’s on-line journal. In her response to the question, What’s the point of writing?” she perfectly, exactly describes what we mean to do as creative people doing creative work. I want to quote a fair chunk of this because it’s so good.

Rosser says the mind’s first instincts are “to stabilize, to fix, to banalize everything it perceives; . . . .to cope with new stimuli by repressing them; to distort each new confrontation into a replica of one already experienced; to arm itself with thoughts that will render it invulnerable to unexpected, destabilizing situations; to belong, to make nice; to accommodate or neutralize surroundings, feelings, and other minds by not taking genuine notice of them.
“Hence—she goes on—small talk. Hence the proliferation of strip malls, sidewalks. Hence greeting cards. Hence houses and automobiles that shield us from the environment and to a large extent prevent us from being seen. Hence aspirin, sunglasses, telephones, Facebook.
“Not all of these protective strategies are inherently bad,” she goes on, “but in the aggregate they. . . .dull our awareness and compassion, and ultimately constitute the death of meaning. Does this sound hyperbolically grave?” she asks. “Our engagement with the world is half of what we need to feel we belong in it, to feel a reason to live. So we write in order to love our lives—to nourish our curiosity and jolt ourselves from the predicted pathways our minds have learned to follow. . . . .The point of writing is to plunge into the core of what it means to exist, in particular as a human on this planet among other beings; to feel our fellowship with heightened immediacy; to explode apathy and complacency.

Here is a very interesting observation she makes: “Why not just write in private journals?” she asks. Her answer is: “Because not risking the resistance or disapproval of readers would be another form of apathy,” she says. “Exploding and rediscovering truth is just one half of our felt purpose, our way to engage with the world. The other half, I’d say, is in the telling.”

This is what we do on this show, isn’t it? Call attention to the telling. We’re all listening together, and that’s a risk. Someone might not like something. We might hear something that doesn’t agree with our personal philosophy. We get shaken out of our comfortable groove. Writing and reading and listening can be radical acts, if the writing is the kind that’s going deep into the meaning of meaning.

Okay, enough philosophizing. Let’s hear another poem from J. Allyn Rosser. This one is called:

First Empathy
(from her book, Foiled Again, published in 2007, which won the New Criterion Poetry Prize)

The pig on the page is crying.
Its back is angled toward the reader,
but we can still see the squinch
of its features in profile, the three
huge tears gushing diagonally upward.
Its kite is stuck in the tree.
And from somewhere below the crown
of her head, an inch from my lips,
my daughter cries out: “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
She is pointing frantically at the pig,
at the kite, using the only one
of her fifteen words that comes close:
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” as if to say
I’ve been there! I know this!
Story of my LIFE!
Her eighteen months’ worth of sorrow
wells up in her throat, stuck there
like that kite with its diamond shape
that turns out not to be one,
even diamonds are not shaped like diamonds,
and hearts, it’s all going to accrete so slowly,
the midden of quotidian disappointment,
wadding up the string and crumpling
the kite and blocking the passage
of her future joys, for life, hers and
mine to be spent watching. Now
the finger-in-the-dike wail:
she’s actually holding back sobs
for this dumb little pig wearing shorts
and I can’t stop this. Can’t retrieve the kite.
I try to turn the page, but she slaps it back down
with a peremptory dumpling hand.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” One sob.
But there are other pictures of pigs,
I say idiotically, happy pink pigs
eating roast beef and smiling ones
who run their own deli counters
selling low-salt turkey instead of ham,
and pigs with snazzy convertibles,
pigs with jobs on ladders painting,
important pigs running for the bus
bearing briefcases, vacationing pigs
in green jeeps, look! Nothing doing.
She has identified this page as hers.
“Yeah! Yeah!” That kite is stuck in the tree.
“Yeah!” We both sit here and stare.
Christ. It is never going to come down.

Again, there’s that voice. You are just in the room with her, feeling exactly that human despair, but kind of enlivened by it, recognizing that it’s part of being human.

Rosser was born in Pennsylvania and earned her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. She has several fine books. Her newest, which I mentioned earlier, is Foiled Again, published by Ivan R. Dee. Rosser is a member of the faculty at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.