CJ Evans is a contributing editor for Tin House magazine and Two Lines Press, a publisher of international literature in translation. When Terrance Hayes selected Evans’ chapbook, The Category of Outcast, for the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets chapbook series, he noted that, “The maturity, dexterity, and vision of this chapbook will, no doubt, develop into a dazzling book-length collection.” That book-length collection, A Penance, debuts with poems full of vision that function and flow with the same verve as seen in The Category of Outcast.
The speaker in the poems of A Penance embodies prayer, instructions, and an eye for violence in his surroundings. Evans was convicted of assault from a bar fight, and spent a year between the Shutter Creek and Santiam Correctional Institutions in Oregon. Evans was influenced by the stories of his fellow inmates, and uses their nicknames in a series of instructional poems where the speaker offers instructions curved with advice for the specific inmate. This information allows for a double-reading, as many of the nicknames are based on inanimate objects—Wire, Silk, Loyal. When a speaker instructs Silk to “Becalm in paper scent // of scotch” and “Arrive // slim-boned, wisped, lusting after lust / and the honey unknown,” the reader is able to marry the inanimate with the animate, the silk with the body that encompasses these qualities and can interact with his surroundings.
What the speaker chooses to act upon is a world constructed from both the romantic and the violent. The speaker in “Penitential” offers a catalogue of the “fragile useless” that evolves from the softness of “fingers along the underbelly / of a wrist” to the “landmines and stamens and blood on the eyeglasses / photographed on cobbles.” In a world where “men kill / men after earlier killings,” the speaker still longs for human connections, even if those stories must also stem from violence, as seen in the poem “From Nowhere, with Love”:
The mothwings beat
and I’m cold, father
why don’t you tell me
your stories of war?
But wait for those
damn wings. I can’t
There is always an inherent tenderness to the poems as the language builds onto itself. It can be seen in the music of the long e carried first from the hard k softening to the b’s in the first stanza of “Aubade (II)” as the speaker insists to “Wake to the breaking of the lion’s / teeth, the hard billet, and the drake. Begin not with fire but with breath.” A “Miscarriage” becomes a sad lyric as the speaker notes, “The world is gone to metal, but she / ignores the steels and zincs” and “Outside, birds fail / to unwrap aluminum wings; only // hawkmoths still fly.” A Penance relies on this music to construct a world of surprising detail, of the hard edges of aluminum to match the lightness of wings.
Although most of the collection is comprised of tightly-wrought couplets, Evans offers a “Battered Sestina with Broken Wolves,” where the typical six stanzas are broken into six sections, and the repeated words are placed not at the end of the line, but in the middle or rephrased (“sleep” becomes “eyes closed” or “coming to rest”). Evans also uses an abundance of anaphora throughout his work, such as “On Sharks, On Sex,” where each statement begins with “On,” or in “Penitentiary,” where the speaker begins each of his sentences with “I” and lets the poem flow into what he dreads, knows, and desires out of this world. The repetition allows for the reader to remain grounded as the speaker constructs a world lush with texture and language.
What carries these poems, ultimately, is Evans’ lyricism. Evans creates tension by constructing poems full of presence and detail. Each poem offers a surprise, whether it’s a sharp linebreak of “irritating // pearl” or the association of “Thirst / after hushes and hands held over lips.” Readers are asked to “Accept metronome, / sparrow, and steeping” within the same breath, and they absolutely should.
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