What Can We Know?

by Ben-Lev, Dina

Abstract (Summary)
CRITICAL PAPER: Laura Jensen: Einstein of the Ordinary is a monograph exploring the life and poetical works of Northwest writer Laura Jensen. The monograph begins with a biography of Jensen and an exploration of her poetic influences. It then moves into a critical (and chronological) discussion of her collected and uncollected poems. Jensen has authored five chapbooks (After I Have Voted, 1972; Anxiety and Ashes, 1976; The Story Makes Them Whole, 1979; Tapwater, 1978; Sky Empty of Orion, 1985) and three full-length collections (Bad Boats, 1977; Memory, 1982; Shelter, 1985). The monograph includes commentary by Laura Jensen, gleamed from personal letters and published essays. In addition, critical responses to Jensen’s works by other poet-critics (including Stuart Friebert, Tess Gallagher, Tony Hoagland, Carolyn Kizer, Stanley Plumly, and Floyd Skloot) are interwoven throughout. My aim in writing this monograph for the University of Idaho’s Western Writers’ Series was to bring Jensen’s work to new readers. The Series is almost exclusively sold to libraries across the country, and the monographs are written for college freshman readers of poetry and fiction. POETRY COLLECTION: What Can We Know? is a volume of free-verse poetry focusing on the complexities of human relationships in a social and political environment that makes individuals feel incapable of making anything but the smallest of gestures in ameliorating the suffering of their fellow citizens. The poems are divided into four sections. In the first section, the female, first-person speaker of the majority of the poems is introduced. She is cynical about the overall integrity of the government’s agenda, and decides that one must gain a sense of reality and beauty from concrete pleasures of every day life. This section explores some of the mysteries that trouble the speaker: her closed adoption, the holocaust and her grandmother’s job in a sweatshop, the accidental deaths of friends and strangers, and her father’s trial against McCarthy. The section ends with a poem about transcendence: a Trappist monk on an airplane reminds the speaker that, at least in the sky, "everyone understands the meaning of wings." The second section continues the study of mystery of existence, but moves more intimately into the speaker’s personal life. The poems examine topics such as failed romantic relationships, childhood memories, ridiculous jobs, a devilish landlord, the thwarted search for the speaker’s biological mother, and an unsuccessful burglary. The final poem in the section finishes on a dark note: a bottle of wine attempts to seduce the speaker away from contemplating unanswerable questions. The speaker assumes a tone of acceptance in the third section. The first poem reminds the reader that we only have the remotest ideas about the origins of our species. Other poems suggest the parallel between this mystery and the inconclusiveness of death. The speaker officially ends her search for her birth mother with an unsendable letter. The fourth section follows the speaker into new area, her pregnancy and birth of her son. While certain mysteries still trouble the speaker (politics, war, family relationships, sexual harassment), she has ultimately returned to the concept that began the collection: that one must focus on the ordinary miracles and beauty to find inner satisfaction.
Bibliographical Information:


School:University of Cincinnati

School Location:USA - Ohio

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:poetry laura jensen


Date of Publication:01/01/2001

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