The Passion of Phineas Gage & Selected Poems

by Jesse Glass, West House Books & ahadada books

175 pages $16.50 US $18.95 Canada

Judith Skillman

The Passion of Phineas Gage & Selected Poems contains the bizarre lucidity readers have come to expect of Glass’ verse in recent years. Jesse Glass has many influences; he is inspired by them but never daunted. A protégé, Glass is an original voice. His works are multi-layered and many-faceted. Take, for instance a poem titled “A MAN STANDS IN THE YELLOW AIR IN THE FIERY GLOBE OF MY HEIGHT, ACCOMPANIED WITH SOME HUNDRED OF PUPPETS, ONE OF WHICH SAYS:” (p. 97.) This statement, posited as a title, requires a second or third reading, as does the poem that follows, which is broken out in short, two and three beat lines stuffed full of active verbs, each line beginning with a quotation mark. The rewards for the reader who spends time with Glass’ work, which deserves to be called leading edge, yet remains academic to the core, are ample.

If Jesse Glass were a football player, his namesake and mascot would be the lion—make that The Glass Lions. Lions and other predators appear in these poems, and Glass approaches even the must subtle subject matter with a ferocity that betrays an intense masculinity. Take “Alchemical Lion”: “Lion whose brain is an elastic sea/See us shivering beneath the/ Sky (l. 8 -10, p. 63); “As you held us/between your lips/In savage definition…” (l. 15 – 17, p. 63)

Even in “The Altered Voice,” where he dares the reader to choose whether he is male or female, Glass sounds like a man: “Can you tell/if I’m male or female. Don’t/ panic. Cover my name/ with flour or volcanic ash…” (l. 3 – 6, p. 82.) Finally the persona of the poem gives an ultimatum: ‘it’ must decide, but, ironically, the voice has already given itself away: “…I must decide if I am/a man or a wanton woman as I move, three steps forward,/clap hands, then two steps back, across the noumenal ground of the poem…” (p. 83.) Ultimately, it is the inability to refrain from taking action that gives the persona’s gender away.

The Passion of Phineas Gage & Selected Poems is a book that defies its own literary category, that of “New and Selected,” “Selected,” and “Collected,” all of which have been published by prolific authors for centuries. This particular act of defiance, created by including a new collection of poems that has never been published before within a volume of selected poems (The Passion of Phineas Gage) is symbolic of Glass’ style. While academic to the core, he refuses to adhere to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style—except for the fact that he is enamored of the ampersand, and uses it quite freely. His penchant for disregarding accepted stylistic norms within the English language begins with his unique treatment of the Phineas Gage story, which while true, defies or redefines, depending upon one’s point of view, that genre of historical, encyclopedic poetry favored by poets such as Linda Bierds, David Jones, Charles Olson, and Francis Berry.

As an academic, Jesse Glass’ biography is impressive. He received his M.A in English at Johns Hopkins, and his PhD in English at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Currently, he is a Professor of American Literature at Meikai University in Japan. This strong literary background infuses the poems. While academia acts as a catalyst for Glass, it is his fusion between the stylistic norms of verse writing and ‘fringe’ writing/experimentalism that make his work fresh and original. One would be hard pressed to find a single line of ‘preciousness’ within these poems. Indeed it is his awareness of himself as a writer while engaged in the process of writing—a thankless task, quite often, and one which other writers, including John Ashberry have acknowledged they engage in for the sake of process, not publishing—this willingness to explore that makes Glass’ voice unique. “This Word” (p. 100) from the Selected portion of the book begins:

“This word

begets itself

as in: stallion’s hooves/mare’s back…” (l. 1 – 3)

Here again we see the contrast of masculine and feminine, one that Glass employs often, as if to challenge the reader to examine the differences and similarities between the sexes. But the poem continues:

“the alembic surfeited, stretched

watched w/out embarrassment

in a field hock deep in reddest mud

or as the inverted tan triangles

marching on the iridescent lip of the cowrie

vitrify to a bronze & cream tattoo

one complex, self-regulating system finds another until a room, a stanza,

a prison is built.” (l. 4 –11)

Webster’s defines “alembic” as “2: anything that refines or purifies.” By juxtaposing words from colloquial, idiomatic written usage (“w/out”), with words such as “vitrify,” Glass creates his own vocabulary, one rich in both conversational tone and heady allusions. The impression one gets while reading this diverse language is not one of confusion. Rather, a purification of language takes place through the range of highly academic and multi-syllabic words placed next to the widely used stenographic ‘w/out’ as abbreviation for “without.” In addition, he is not afraid of coining new words to add to an already large vocabulary. His verbs include “psalterize,” “enigmatize,” “decanting” and “redacting” (from “Nagasaki”)—here we see a writer who remains sensitive yet agile, grounded but imaginative to the extreme.

Glass, then, is a master of the unexpected. He surprises us again and again in these poems, and the surprise is sensual, as is the volatility of his words. Like a violinist who can reach the highest e on the E string, and then lift an elbow to reach for the open G, the reader senses a range not often encountered in English.

In addition to the element of surprise, Jesse Glass’ academic career allows for ample allusions to take place in the poems. Consider the following titles: “To Hart Crane,” “To Leibnitz From Japan,” “On Handel’s Suite for Harpsichord No.5 in E Major,” “Lecturing on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in China,” “Holderlin’s Cabinet,” and “Mayakovsky is Dead.” This is only a short but impressive list of artists who, while they may have had a substantial influence Glass’ diverse work, come, in the end, to being incorporated as part of his own prismatic canon.

Take, for example, his inclusion of the visual poetry that precedes his last long poem series titled “My Sculpture” framed in black, with these words in the center: “The Distance between/Your Eye/& this page” (p. 131.) This is not so much poetry as visual art, a piece in which each and every device of language at Glass’ disposal is implemented. Reading “Seashell Event” (p. 132) one is hard pressed to quit with simply reading when told exactly what to do with the seashell: “Each member of the orchestra should find a seashell…and should study the shell for a solid week or more so that they know every detail of the item…”

But Glass ups the ante. He can see life through both telescope and microscope; he postures, in this poem, as a teacher at “Events for the Great Learning Orchestra (Stockholm)” and by doing so requires that both the large and small aspects of time and place be studied by the reader. There is no room for dismissal in these poems. If one were in the classroom, one senses that night would fall and the lecture would go on, but by virtue of his/her interest, the ‘imprisoned’ student would choose to stay for another lecturette, say “Trope Event,” which begins as follows:

“1. I will read a moderately long poem. After I read each page I will destroy it in some ritualistic manner: tear it up, perhaps set it afire.” (p. 134, l. 1-2.)

Indeed, this poem could be Glass’ ars poetica, with its ending:

“4. The life of the poem resides in the middle ground between trope & memory.” (l. 9)

He then signs and dates the poem, and locates it as a letter from two locations: Milwaukee Wisconsin, and Urayusu, Japan. This ability to straddle cultures is another of his strengths. Not only does he use the full range of language stylistically, Glass allows enculturation to change his poems, but subtly, as if the culture of a place were his director, and not vice versa. This chameleon-like awareness of place is rarely found in contemporary poetics.

There is, within the Selected, one poem where Glass pushes the reader almost past the point of patience with his changeability of forms, language usage, and punctuation. Justifiably, however, this poem is about the event that changed so many lives in the United States and elsewhere: 9/11. There is no title. In that respect, the event recalls its own shock, as it shocks on the page by quite simply beginning in two line, very short stanzas: “down/it came/down/from/ the autumn/ sky…” (p. 134.) This simple language betrays a horrific scenario: “& some/were/run-/ning/& some/were/burn-/ing…” The breaking of verbs allows the reader to re-experience the tragedy while at the same time de-politicizing it.

To move then, after the style of Glass, achronologically back to the beginning of the volume, The Passion of Phineas Gage, is narrative and journalistic, but equally enriched by a unique sense of style. It is a story within a story told from various points of view that include primary sources such as Gage’s wife, known only as Mrs. Gage, his personal physician Dr. J.M. Harlow, his mother, and several witnesses to the event that alters Gage’s life—described in detail in #1 of 23 parts: “The medium of this remarkable change was an iron tamping bar 3 cm. thick and 109 cm. long that was sent rocketing through Gage’s brain in a bizarre accident with black powder.”(page 11, lines 4 – 6.) The transformative power of this tragic accident is not so much explicated as experienced in the poems, and its effects continue to reverberate for the reader of subsequent poems.

Indeed, The Passion… explores TEXT, upper case letters intentional, using concrete/structural verse, heavy alliteration and repetition, asterisks, script-writing/plays/theatric devices, and an array of other modalities. While reminiscent of Baudelaire, Glass goes further—he pushes the envelope. Or to use a contemporary idiom that has become almost cliché, his technique for pushing the envelope is more ‘sexy.’

Finally, it is the element of playfulness, so often missing from contemporary poetic voices, that informs these poems and engages the reader. The use of language as play forces a transformation, or, to use Glass’ words, creates the “Transfiguration” exemplified by Phineas Gage in #23 (the penultimate work in this first volume appended to the Selected Poems.) The poem begins on Gage’s death bed:

“But let us go a step further.

Allow the sun’s rays

to fall on a good glass prism and project the

rainbow colors on the nearest wall


Tumefaction of the face considerable (1823 – 1866)

Discharge from the wound & sinus

Restless & delirious

Passed a probe to the base of the cranium without giving pain.

The remainder being ejaculated from the mouth—

GAGE.” (p. 50)

While this may upset the sensibilities of the finicky reader, it certainly does not shy away from the realities of death and dying. The fact that the poem is posed on the page as structural/concrete amplifies its effects. Gage, dying, uses his own “discharge” to uphold his name. While repulsive, there is a certain glee in this last part of the story. It is passionate and child-like at once. Glass isn’t afraid to go beyond the formalities of making poems to enter into another realm, one which, while fraught with complexities, is not far from the state of humanity as we enter this 21st century.

A Note about the Reviewer

Judith Skillman is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Eric Mathieu King Fund from the Academy of American Poets for her book “Storm,” Blue Begonia Press, 1998. Grants include a Writer’s Fellowship from the Washington State Arts Commission and a public arts grant from King County Arts Commission. Her poems have appeared in FIELD, Poetry, Southern Review, Seneca Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Journal of the American Medical Association, Northwest Review, and many other journals. Skillman’s “Heat Lightning: New and Selected Poems 1986 – 2006 “ was published in early 2006 by Silverfish Review Press. It contains selections from her seven previously published books. “Coppelia, Certain Digressions,” is due out in 2006 from David Robert Books. Skillman is a Faculty Member at City University in Bellevue, Washington.