Danielle Janess’s debut poetry collection is a richly layered exploration into dark reaches of family history and inter-generational repercussions, largely from the perspective of a WOMAN searching for clues about her Polish GRANDFATHER while she and her CHILD are living in post-Wall Berlin. Yes, the upper case is intentional: a “cast list,” tellingly labelled “Displaced Persons” rather than “Dramatis Personae,” appears at the front of the book, and the characters’ titles are capitalized in a number of the poems.
Janess’s background in theatre is evident in many elements besides the way the characters are introduced, including the book’s division into five acts. Some poems situate the reader and/or the characters as audience in a physical theatre while “how we appeared to each other then” (ACT II) plays out on stage. A few poems consist of dialogue or monologue, and a larger number take the form of elaborate stage directions. In the untitled opening poem, the woman is “Facedown on bare stage” (ACT I). Alongside instructions that might not be out of place in any script, are others that externalize interior states, such as “but her thoughts snake blue / beneath her skin” (ACT I). Or later, as a poem title: “WOMAN (altered about the eyes).” The endnotes confirm that variations on some of the poems were indeed performed on stage. A beautiful short film embodying the collection has also been made.
We learn obliquely—through records and database searches; through extrapolations from photos, imagination, and artifacts (the contents of a suitcase, an unopened coffin); and through memories revisited—about the GRANDFATHER’s experiences in a POW camp in Siberia, in the Polish and British armies, and in Canada post-war. In the title poem, the penultimate one in the book, recurring images, including various dolls that have been buried or soaked, are recontextualized: “It is his doll. It is his pain. He must press it smaller than a / thimble. He must swallow it” (“THE MILK OF AMNESIA”). In the final poem, the Siege of Warsaw looms and a (forgotten, amnesiac) part of the family history plays out, the only prior clue to which is the identification of the grandfather in one of the official documents as “widower.”
In the book’s other major thread, the WOMAN, a single mother in Berlin, reconnects there with her former German LOVER, who somehow resembles the grandfather she barely knew, and who bears his own legacy of inherited trauma. Janess employs visceral and arresting images, in landscapes both rural “the fields look snaked with meat” (ACT II) and urban “The slick rat pelts / of diesel paraffin / oiling the still air” (“PRAGUE, MAIN STATION”), and in the unfolding relationship:
“We’ll open up our flesh. We have to try.
We’ll use our teeth and nails, the friction
of our cuticles. We rasp and click
cracking along suture lines
with the hooks of our fingers. Our thumbs
press to skinned tendons, ears to lips,
eyeballs to the crevices of rib bones, as if peering
through the slits of a window blind.” (ACT II)
Janess keeps the reader slightly off-balance, with shifting points of view: the central woman is “I” in some poems and “you” or “she” in others, while both the grandfather and the lover are sometimes “he” but often “you.” Although the speaker and her young daughter are the initial WOMAN and CHILD, other mothers and children, real and mythic, are integral to the book. The cast of Displaced Persons is rounded out with BABA (“old woman” but with distinctly witchy overtones) and GRANDMOTHER (not the speaker’s babcia, I speculate, but the LOVER’s) who, we are told, play ALL OTHER CHARACTERS.
Through this kaleidoscopic, multi-faceted work of memory-theatre, Janess evokes a stunning array of interlinked relationships, love, and obsessions. The speaker says, “I bleed atop this page to animate my dead” (ACT II), and Janess has indeed animated the depths of loss for us in moving portrayals of both the dead and the living.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.