Mad Dogs of Trieste, by Janine Pommy Vega

We have a poetry discussion group that meets once a month. Members take turns leading the discussion, which can mean presenting a brief introduction to the chosen poet or simply identifying a selection of poems to be discussed. As you can imagine, our tastes vary widely, and we often differ in our assessments. This disparity has been helpful to me as a writer: seeing how one person can love a poem and another hate it, learning what appeals to various people. Some of our members are poets, but not everyone. The group has also been helpful to me as a reader, introducing me to new poets, forcing me to look harder at work I might have skipped over, providing new insights into poems I thought I’d plumbed.

For this month I selected Janine Pommy Vega who was unknown to nearly everyone in our group. Since Vega passed away recently (December 2010), it seemed like a good time to look at her body of work. Also, a couple of our members teach in prisons, as Vega herself did for many years. As a teenager, Vega ran off to Greenwich Village where she met Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, among others. Her early poetry reflects this Beat influence while her later poetry often seems centered upon her work in prisons and upon the spiritual quest that took her around the world. Mad Dogs is her twelfth collection of poetry and includes work selected from earlier volumes.

As one member of our group remarked, Vega’s work is uneven: some poems are transcendent while others seem flat. The poems I selected naturally reflected my taste, which is for unexpected images knocking up against each other, leaving lots of room for ambiguity. Consequently, a few people found the poems too vague. One that many thought remarkable though obscure was “The Traveler”. With references to Plato—cave, tunnel and sky—the narrator goes “on an outing in the home/of myself”. The poem is filled with images of things that do not work and the sound of things breaking. The ending is strange and ominous: “No snow crackles under the traveler’s feet/out walking without the body, sense peeled like/an apple to the deer nibbling down the sky.”

We all liked “Re-entry” which is about the difficulty of coming back from being away. She says, “One night the body went out to find/its darkness”. It doesn’t matter where the person has been, although that didn’t stop us speculating about possibilities—prison, sleeping, a drug trip. What matters is the inability to return: “you look at photos, memories of the mind/and can’t return to the places/you might have been”. Everything seems strange: “What will you do with your hair/your nails and eyebrows/what will you do with your hair?”

“May Day”, which examines the narrator’s relationship with her mother and their shared legacy of anger, sparked a long discussion. Some of us thought the anger the two women expressed was an inchoate rage without a specific target or rationale: “ancient woman/of the earth who comes up/howling, red, her hands running with lava”. Others thought the rage was at each other and talked about women’s anger with their mothers. If that is true, the ending moves to a reconciliation: “I can’t disown her/every shred of her dress is mine”. We disagreed as to whether anger can lead to regeneration, like forest fires enabling new growth, but were united in our appreciation of the title’s resonances with pagan rituals, S.O.S. calls, and revolution.

I’m grateful to the members of our group for their insights and suggestions which led me to a deeper appreciation of these poems and Vega’s particular talent.

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