Jay Parini: Poet of Place

Time after time, Jay Parini’s poems focus on a concrete sense of space. Whether the poems are populated with people, the natural world, or just the poet-narrator, the poems of New and Collected Poems: 1975-2015 seek universal themes by way of the local. Parini has called these the poems he wishes “to stand by,” and they show him to have one of the steadiest hands in American poetry over the last 40 years.

Many poems in this collection follow the poet back to childhood in the mining country of Pennsylvania. In “Playing in the Mines,” Parini shows his younger self facing fear–and disobeying his elders–by going to play in an abandoned mine:

No one behind you, not looking back,
you followed the sooty smell of coal dust,
close damp walls with a thousand facets
the vaulted ceilings with its crust of bats,
till the tunnel narrowed, and you came
to a point where the playing stopped.

Standing in the pitch darkness at the point where playing meets “your own black fear,” Parini matches the detail to the emotion (“crust of bats” is particularly noteworthy). His decision to narrate the poem in the 2nd person only adds to the universal feel.

Another, later poem deals with fear of a different kind. “After the Terror” (to my mind, the best poem in the collection” is a villanelle in interlocking rhymes that responds to the madness that followed the 9/11 attacks: “Everything has changed, though nothing has. / They’ve changed the locks on almost every door, / and windows have been bolted just in case.” While the location in this poem is more generalized, the feeling of universality is just as strong. Everything as changed, and a faceless bureaucracy is in charge “No cause for panic, they maintain.”

Many of Parini’s more recent poems are more religious in nature. He titles one section of his new poems “Ordinary time” which includes such poems as “Belief,” “Blessings,” and “Do Lord Remember” where he acknowledges both his belief and his struggles with belief:

Don’t get me wrong–my tone tips over
once or twice a day to snarky digging–
but I do intend no disrespect.
The believe in you, the ways you went,
your hands that lifted me along the hills,
that pointed out (in case I didn’t notice)
many sudden turns I should have seen
but almost didn’t

Here is Parini again, back among the familiar mining hills near Scranton, with his God showing him the sites he should see. Like the prophetic poets of the past, Parini’s “visions” are both particular and universal, occurring at a particular time and place, but (at least in the best poems) echoing much more broadly.

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