Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis by Jeffrey Jullich
(Litmus Press, New York, 2010)
The poems in Jeffrey Jullich’s Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis have an ease to them, despite their use of disjunction and complex juxtapositions. There is a breezy quality that arises from a casually self-assured expression of difficult concepts and abstractions and the union of these elements through image. Jullich’s images are sharp and refreshing in that same casual way, arising from a linguistic inventiveness that is not showy or self-involved even in the unusual turns it takes. But Portrait is not an “easy” collection, nor is it accessible in the usual sense, though its handling of complex concepts makes them much more accessible than the concepts would be otherwise.
A good example of this is the poem “Buck Fever,” which suggests by its title an interaction with nature, as that phrase is used to describe the nervousness of a new hunter at sighting game for the first time, then undercuts this association by the banal, city setting of “walking / home from the office along the sidewalk….” Jullich then manages to bring in the title’s association, with the speaker being
petrified aghast—by a pure idea
cogitated upon until sick with fright,
the cement pavement rocking like a funhouse
after five o’clock on pay day, so jittery
I keep flinching all over at the thought,
pensive in dread at the abstract concept of
a theoretical oratorio,
of sorts, without costumes or scenery
Whatever the “pure idea” that is so frightening is, Jullich never makes absolutely clear, and the poem might threaten to unravel if it weren’t for the title’s firm link to an idea. Jullich has made a metaphor of the poem to the title’s tenor; the poem’s emphasis on the abstract—“pure idea // cogitated upon” and “the abstract concept // of theoretical oratorio”—can then be ascribed to the function of the mental experience of the phenomenon of buck fever.
The poem does not remain in the weightlessness of the abstract, however. Jullich deftly turns the poem back to the animal presence lingering in the
background, extrapolating on a glance
seen from the opposite side of the street
as from a distant shore, remotely—in which case
traces might retain no mammal body heat.
Typography could be no interconnection,
—absence outracing hope,
like a trope, like a turtle chasing an arrow.
It is a subtle move, the silent maneuver back into the context that, implied by the title, has been withheld from the reader for the sake of abstraction and theorizing; and the move is so precisely effective because of the relief the reader feels in being led through “abstract concept” to “mammal body heat.” But the feature of this poem that most distinguishes Jullich’s authority as a skilled and confident poet is that he mixes in the suggestion of ars poetica with this physical, animalistic embodiment of the poem—bringing in “trope” as the rhyme for hope, mentioning typography, which, as this is an early poem, should still be on the reader’s mind from the title. Instead of abandoning complexity and difficulty entirely for the sake of a clear, physical ending, Jullich is able to embed a new sort of complexity into the poem without distracting from the satisfying final image of the “turtle chasing an arrow.”
One of Jullich’s trademark devices is the italicization of words that, given their context of formal or theoretical written discourse, should not be italicized. Jullich uses this technique to impart the cadence of spoken voice, with all its dramatic emphases, into the poems. To use an example from “Buck Fever” so that Jullich’s purpose is most apparent, the italicization of “traces” completely transforms the phrase in which the word appears. The line without italics—“in which case // traces might retain no mammal body heat”—feels stuffy and obscure. Yet with the expressive emphasis that Jullich puts on “traces,” the phrase is invigorated, since now something is being distinguished, an alternate possibility is acknowledged through the emphasis on this term, drawing the reader’s attention to the term that is being used.
In some ways, this italicization can come off as off-putting or manipulative—I’ll admit that that was my initial response. Over the course of the collection, however, I came to see that Jullich was clearly aware of this manipulative element and was consciously highlighting it with his out-of-place italicizations. Poetry is manipulative—it tries to elicit a response from the reader, and it does this through its rhetorical constructs, its syntax, its diction, its tone, its voice, etc. By bringing the evidence of this eager manipulation of the poet to the surface, I found myself trusting Jullich more and more as the collection went on: trusting that the challenges of his work were purposeful and would led to satisfying conclusions (as they often did) and also trusting his voice itself, the image of the poet that I could infer from the more than seventy poems in this collection.
Emoticons can be a risky association to place front and center in your poetry collection’s title, saddled as they are with the stigma of puerile internet-speak. The association between the nuts and bolts of typographical symbols and mood, however, is a fruitful undertaking for a poet fixated on the way language creates his poems. It is because this language doesn’t stop at random bits of language alone—at, say, a portrait of apostrophe semicolon slash, which do not align into any meaningful image. Jullich chooses instead to assemble a human sensibility and emotional presence from the technical, formal elements of our language. The colon, dash, and parenthesis, in this arrangement, are known through a cultural consciousness to indicate a smile (or a frown, depending on whether the opening or closing parenthesis is used), but Jullich is pushing the semiotics here to new ground. By writing out the names of the typographical remarks, Jullich adds an additional layer of remove between the association we have with the words we read and understand and the end product of a smile or a frown. Just as his experiments with italicization led from manipulation to a knowing openness about the possibility and function of manipulation and thus ceased to be manipulative, the title of Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis moves through a disrespect for the complexities of language to shine a light on how these complexities actually function. Jeffrey Jullich has created a highly accomplished collection that encourages rereading not only for the ways that its components reveal themselves in doing so, but also for the moments of delight and humanness that mingle with theory and concept throughout the individual poems.
Logan Fry lives in Austin, Texas, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas. His poetry has most recently appeared in elimae.