Julie Kane, Jazz Funeral

Publisher: Story Line Press, West Chester University
2009, 57 pages, paper, $14.95

julie kane’s jazz Funeral, winner of the Donald Justice Prize, reminds poets and readers once again of the gentle power of form. It is easy to forget form and its ability to provide a different space to delve in. The plentiful sonnets not only create the Jazz of the book with their sultry repetitions and rhythmic melodies; they offer a space for the poems to announce themselves.

Death is not a new subject for poetry. Form is not a new place for mourning to occur. However, it is easily forgotten that in the turmoil of chaos, sometimes a concrete form can provide the only voice capable of capturing the moment. The subject matter and emotion is intensified as Jazz Funeral moves through each of three sections. This familiarity allows Julie Kane to take readers further inside a jazz funeral than they would normally be willing to tread, keeping them afloat within the protective arms of sonnet.

The book is divided into three sections: “The March to the Graveyard,” “The Eulogy,” and “Cutting the Body Loose.” The first section, “The March to the Graveyard,” is a section of reflection, focusing on age, history, and mortality. Of the poems that mention death in this section, most are about the death of animals. While this offers the hint of death, a reader can still keep their distance from it. In “Ode On Grimalkin Urns,” Kane writes:

My ex’s mother had a poodle die
in Sabine, Texas, and her husband dug
its grave while she was sleeping, then forgot
precisely where in all that oilfield muck
he’d planted Happy. Heraclitus said:
Throw out like dung the bodies of the dead.

This section presents the first tickling finger of death, picking its way into the mind. Yet, at this stage, there is still room for wandering. One can almost see a person ambling towards a cemetery on a bright day, with a mind floating towards death while the body soaks in sunshine.

“The Eulogy” focuses on a single person: Robert Borsodi. The section opens with a biographical description of Borsodi, followed by fourteen numbered sections. The line of the previous poem begins the following poem, creating a flow from one remembrance to the next. Kane does not spare any detail as she tells the history of his life. The descriptions are raw, and the readers can easily situate themselves within that aged coffeehouse, surrounded by poets and patrons. The introduction to Mr. Borsodi includes the details of his own death: “He committed suicide by jumping from the Hale Boggs Bridge into the Mississippi River on October 25, 2003.” Therefore, “The Eulogy” is not just a convenient byway between the preceding and following sections; it is the true eulogy of a man who lived, breathed, and died both in the world and in the pages of Jazz Funeral.

In some ways, “Cutting the Body Loose” tells the greatest tale of loss and reconciliation. Several post-Katrina poems introduce the section. In “The Terror of the Place,” Kane writes:

Disaster tourist–is that you? You step
on sodden books and papers inches deep,
a stuck-together pulp. Like ancient Rome,
the pottery is all that’s left to keep–
a bust, a vase–from what was once a home.
So early waking–what with loathsome smells…
Escaping death, you find yourself in hell.

As “Cutting the Body Loose” moves forward, there are several “In Memoriam” poems. One poem, “Not Another Elegy for You,” remarks upon the loss of someone’s scent. Kane writes: “But not one elegy has told the truth / about your body odor–how you stunk.” The poem ends with: “The human stink gets purged inside the vault.” There is an unflinching honesty that ends in a surprisingly sentimental note. While the reader senses that the poet/narrator is beginning to come to some fragment of peace in this section, it is often a peace that is paired with remorse. The reader cannot be sure that the writer is entirely prepared to be at peace–yet. The book ends with “Purple Martin Suite.” The last poem returns to the style of “The Eulogy,” beginning each new section with the line of the last. There is joy present, and there is an attachment and desire that is finally fulfilled. As the birds of “Purple Martin Suite” swoop within the poem, the reader is gently released from the pages of “Jazz Funeral.” The funeral closes as we might wish all funerals to close: with the gentle reminder of flight.

-Andi McKay