In November of 1997, Frances Ann Glendening sponsored a celebration at the Government House of the life and work of Maryland's most distinguished living poet, Josephine Jacobsen. Poets such as Elizabeth Spires, Kathy Mangan and John Irwin extolled her many virtues. They praised especially her modesty and self-effacement as well as her unerring ability to find mystery in the most ordinary moments of experience.
Today, those poets and poetry lovers around the country are mourning Jacobsen, who died Wednesday after a long illness at age 94. Fortunately for all of us, many wonderful works survive her, including the one reprinted here today.
"You Can Take It With You" is typical of how Jacobsen looked at something that was simply in front of her ("2 little girls who live next door / to this house are on their trampoline") and saw something astonishing.
The astonishment, of course, was the result of Jacobsen's sensibility coming into contact with the world. Hers was a sensibility attuned to the widest frequency of emotional and intellectual response, a frequency that included the joy of flying Icarus-like up to the sun and the awareness of a grimmer reality taking place elsewhere "in this city."
One of the things I admire about this poem is how it seems at first glance to be little more than a description of two girls on a trampoline, and yet after several readings, it grows strange and uncommon.
We come to understand that the poet is sealed off from the experience -- "the window is closed" -- as if she is watching television with the audio muted. As a result, sun and air become elemental forces capable of elevating and imprisoning the girls. They are free and momentarily weightless but they are also helpless: "Nothing, nothing, noth- / ing can keep them down." They are being "shot" and "flung." The poem mimics the girls' repetitive activity with its own repetitions of words, sentence structure, and three-line stanzas.
Eventually the poem's strangeness demands that we ask questions. What is the "it" in the title? How does reversing the common phrase "you can't take it with you" relate to the meaning of the poem? Why does she use the numeral for two rather than the word? Why does she break up the words "nothing" and "snatching" in the fifth and eighth stanzas? And why is there an extra space between "slants" and "it" in the fourth line?
Different readers will come up with different answers to these questions, but I wonder if finding answers is really what Jacobsen had in mind. I think her main purpose was to interrogate the scene in front of her and in the end to work against our tendency to domesticate experience.
What works against this domestication more than anything else is the totally unexpected shift in tone that takes place in the sixth stanza, when the poet almost announces, "I know all about what is / happening in this city at just / this moment." In an instant, she has moved from an acute awareness of the girls next door to an awareness of something larger and potentially dangerous. While the "grain of dark" is not enough to ground Jacobsen's acrobats, it makes us pay attention to their precariousness and enlarges the implications of "shot," "flung," and "gasp."
Jacobsen, who would have turned 95 in August, died Wednesday evening in Cockeysville at Broadmead, a retirement community.
A graduate of Roland Park Country School, where she enrolled in 1922, she spent all of her writing life in Baltimore. For the past several years, she had been in poor health, and yet during that time she published her culminating and definitive works.
In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and was a 1995 National Book Award Finalist. A collection of her award-winning stories, What Goes Without Saying, is also available from Hopkins Press.
The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose, edited by her friend and fellow Balti-more poet Elizabeth Spires, appeared in 1997. A number of the prose pieces included in The Instant of Knowing originally appeared in The Sun.
Jacobsen received some of the most prestigious literary awards in the country, including the Robert Frost Medal of the Poetry Society of America, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and the annual Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets.
From 1971-73, she served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that is now called the U.S. Poet Laureate. I can think of only one other current American poet whose mastery is comparable to Jacobsen's and that is Stanley Kunitz.
If American culture had a different set of priorities, one that honored truth and generosity as demonstrated by a life's work, then Josephine Jacobsen would have been one of our national heroines and much better known. As it is, she is loved and revered by poets and readers of poetry, especially those of us who are trying to keep art alive in a perilous time.
Michael Collier is poet laureate of Maryland. Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.
You Can Take It With You
By Josephine Jacobsen
for Evelyn Prettyman
2 little girls who live next door
to this house are on their trampoline.
The window is closed, so they are soundless.
The sun slants it is going away:
but now it hits full on the trampoline
and the small figure at each end.
Alternately they fly up to the sun,
fly, and rebound, fly, are shot
up, fly, are shot up up.
One comes down in the lotus
position. The other, outdone,
somersaults in air. Their hair
flies too. Nothing, nothing, noth-
ing can keep them down. The air
sucks them up by the hair of their heads.
I know all about what is
happening in this city at just
this moment; every last
grain of dark, I conceive.
But what I see now is:
the 2 little girls flung up
flung up, the sun snatch-
ing them, their mouths rounded
in gasps. They are there, they fly up.
From In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press (1995). Reprinted by permission.