Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Anna Jacobson’s intriguing collection Amnesia Findings won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize in 2018. In this verse, incorporates many skeins of fine silk like a brocade as the poet deftly handles the varied subject matter of mental illness, family, and Jewish faith and culture. She takes as her muse the concept of passing: passing away, the Passover, and memories of the past. Here are motifs of knitting and needlework, uncovering things buried, and musical expression. Innovative in subject matter and imagery, this collection of poetry pulses with the sensations of a troubled yet brilliant mind. Jacobson maps dreamscapes and pins emotions to corkboard like a nineteenth-century explorer-cum-naturalist seeking the meaning of existence.
And yet, there are missing specimens in her carefully curated and catalogued collection of memories. In the opening poem, “Amnesia Findings” (3), the reader learns that the speaker is suffering from partial amnesia. Later, Jacobson reveals the cause of her memory loss: she has repeatedly undergone electroconvulsive therapy to treat the psychosis associated with bipolar disorder. In “Amnesia Findings,” she unearths a set of worry dolls that she had buried years earlier beneath palm trees, whose “shadows / form an X at noon” (3). In this way, “X” marks the spot where the poet digs up the “treasure” (3). Once, the worry dolls had “absorbed night-fears / beneath [her] pillow as [she] slept” (3). Now, they “relinquish [her] worries one by one” (3). This poem is a confident start to the collection, promising the dispelling of anxiety and the release of finely-tuned tension, like plucking the strings of a harp to produce a pleasing tune.
Another poem continues the melody of the first: “When Dreams Turn Archaeological” is also about uncovering shrouded memories, yet Jacobson introduces the theme of the intrinsic importance of family. She observes: “I look at white loungeroom walls, scrape / away paint to reveal frescos glazed / in ruby, sapphire, emerald” (11). This list describes not only vibrant colours but also jewels – here is more buried treasure. Such exuberant hues are precious to the speaker, and she cannot understand how someone once “convinced” her mother “to paint / over such a thing” (11). The uppermost layers on the palimpsest of memory are scraped away to reveal the gorgeous, ebullient origins of the family’s occupation of their house, but the white paint’s erasure causes anxiety for the speaker’s mother, who “is concerned / the chairs won’t match” the boldly-coloured walls (11). It is a well-observed metaphor – the act of scraping away the plain white paint covering up the effusive, bright colours of youth, and the fear, shame, and suppression of artistic expression.
Indeed, Jacobson deals deftly with complex metaphors, spinning tall tales and knitting long scarves of narrative. In “Wilt” (12), she reveals her mother’s compulsion to keep flowers until they wilt and its repercussions. One flower in the bunch refuses to wither, instead flourishing so that “Four months pass, and it mutates, edges expanding. / Vase shatters” (12). Soon, the flower has taken over the kitchen bench, and the family pull off its petals “to use / as tablecloths. Heirlooms to hoard / in the linen cupboard” (12). Here, the domestic becomes grotesque. The poem verges on the nightmarish in the vein of the talking plant Audrey who is ever hungry for human flesh in Little Shop of Horrors, but instead of mass destruction being wrought, mass production ensues. The message is clear: when its head is not lopped off, the tall poppy creates things to be treasured, “heirloom(s)” for future generations. Allow us to thrive, the poet posits, and what wonders may come to pass?
Vivid and evocative, “Butter-Snap Letters” (13) increases the volume of the absurd. Her mother, she says, “collects words in snap-lock packets” (13) and fries them in batter. In a crescendo born of a virtuoso talent, Jacobson reveals that “The ‘J’ hovers / mid-air, will fish-hook stick / in her [mother’s] throat – instead, she wraps it up, hides / it in the freezer. / For later” (13). Other highlights of Jacobson’s collection include “Things I Find While Tidying My Room” (15-17), which explores “a state of remembrance and forgetting” (17) and examines the memories we feel compelled to keep and those mementos we must discard.
This tempo of this poetry collection slows as it progresses and the theme of death moves to the fore, but there are delightful moments even here amid the pain of loss. “Today I Feel Like Remembering” (68-69) is a masterful poem in which the macabre agony of mourning runs contrapuntal to the trappings of domesticity – cooking orange cake, celery growing in a margarine container, pies bought from a shop as a treat, the rare charm of which soon wears off with repetition. Jacobson notes that “The Rabbi cuts my father’s shirt / with scissors” (69) so that, ripped and soil-stained from the burial, the once-pristine shirt appears incongruous in the Chinese takeaway where they order food. The mundane is marked by the extraordinary.
Death continues to sing, raising his plaintive voice at key moments in this collection. At times it is a deep, dark bass; at others, the wailing of a banshee. The poem “Why Can’t We Just Keep Everything?” (82) is an understated depiction of the ritual of sorting through the clothes of the deceased – in this case, her grandmother. The poem is simple and straightforward, skirting the banal, but “Button Collection” (80) and “Yahzreit” (81) are more powerful poems dealing with the division of belongings among a family after a death. In the former poem, an array of buttons in “lolly colours” (80) collected by her grandmother proves tempting to the speaker, so she selects a few, careful to take only ones with doubles, and sews them onto an indigo cardigan. In the latter, a lamp too old to be operable nevertheless lights the poet’s imagination.
Perhaps the best way to describe this collection is as a reckoning, or a sifting through soil to find treasures of the past. We as readers privy to the poet’s journey may be confident that these precious items will illuminate the challenges of the future. In Amnesia Findings, Jacobson works through the process of recovery, of “separating my self / from myself” (“Separation Ceremony” 30). In “How to Knit a Human” (38-39), she describes the process of learning how to “knit myself back into a human” (39). The dehumanising effects of psychosis and its treatment are documented poignantly in this collection, and this is no light sonatina. Nor is it a fugue. It is baroque: rich and vital and rarely discordant. Technically and thematically complex, this poetry collection is nevertheless harmonious, bringing together as it does an eclectic orchestra of instruments to produce a thrilling sound. Amnesia Findingsbears replaying, rewards re-reading, and hints at even greater things to come from this fine new poetic voice.