NEA Literature Fellowships

Jean Day

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(2001 - Poetry)


Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.
-- Virginia Reed

Understand? For your thoughts are not my
thoughts just as you are not mine
but a consoling dream, considering the empirical
discretions of the eye as they fall
on the echoes of realism in clouds.
Description is urgent where your overland remove
meets my wayward resolve: the ships, how
well they sail in the ocean; the
tree, unpracticed, is prime. Yet with
numbers we can sum up the beauties
that reveal themselves in the seventh (eleventh)
hour of pain, unrepresentable and now rounded
at both ends; this baby will surely
be born in attention. And then we
will move on. "Don't let this letter
dishearten anybody"; humility eats her hay where
the fields persist in flowers. If you
saw words in the clouds instead of
numbers, you would become unesoteric. It is
difficult to look at the sun and
yet art is our most ardent dream.

© Jean Day 1998. From Vernaculars of the Present: Seven Secular Sermons, in The Literal World (Berkeley: Atelos, 1998). Reprinted with permission.

Born in 1954, Jean Day grew up in Rhode Island and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1970s. Her first book, Linear C, was published by Tuumba Press in 1983, followed by Flat Birds (Gaz, 1985), A Young Recruit (Roof, 1988), The I and the You (Potes & Poets, 1992), and The Literal World (Atelos, 1998). In 1990, as part of the Russian-English collaborative translation project Five Plus Five, she began translating the work of Nadezhda Kondakova; her versions of Kondakova's poems appear in Third Wave: New Russian Poetry (University of Michigan, 1992) and Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry (Talisman House, 2000). Selections from her own work have also appeared in the anthologies In the American Tree (National Poetry Foundation, 1986), 49 + 1 (Royaumont, 1991), From the Other Side of This Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990 (Sun & Moon, 1993), and Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (Talisman House, 1998). In addition to the NEA writer's fellowship, generous grants from the California Arts Council, the Fund for Poetry, and the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation have helped to support her work. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California, where she works as an editor.

Author's Statement

"Psalm" is one of seven "secular sermons" written as a way of thinking about my relationship to a specifically American tradition, if not form. The rhetoric of preaching interested me under its civic and didactic hats, but also in the decidedly personal sense in which as a mother (I was a new one at the time I wrote these) one takes up tradition, turns it on its head, and passes it on. In an introduction to the book in which the series appears, I wrote: "Like you, I find the place underfoot (America) compelling. It's personal, the corrupted ideal, the new old broken world westering from ruin to ruin, hope just over the next horizon in the form, say, of a baby, or paradigm's citizen. In the face of this irreducible, most biological of facts (our young don't spring from our heads - or do they?), I can't help but see the limits of literal understanding dilate then deliquesce. Before birth comes speculation though, and while you were out more of us arrived with our own enthusiasm. When I was writing these poems I was interested in the figure of the enthusiast and the forms (scientific, ethnographic, theological, and so on) of her beliefãespecially in the kind of writing-for-hire that, not coincidentally, the men in my family tree have for generations produced: the weekly sermon." My sermons are nothing like my grandfathers', but they stem, I think, from a similar need to know (and perhaps grandiose urge to reveal) the perceptibility of the worlds we live in.