MARY LEE ALLEN
Review | Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig, by Jane Gentry
A white pig! Mother, wife, lover, college professor, poet laureate of Kentucky. A pig rooting in the dirt?
The analogy works. Like the white pig shining golden in the slant of a November afternoon, Jane Gentry digs subjects and images from her Kentucky heritage for the poems in her collection Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig. She has spent her life in the same place she was born, and she grew up surrounded by relatives, including the deceased in family graveyards, and her own children. In the title poem, she asks:
She writes with passion about the sound of a furnace, the touch of a lover, or the house that is her “body’s body.” All her senses are turned on and tuned in to nature and her surroundings. Her poems describe tenderly, lovingly, in the minutest detail the joys and tragedies, successes and griefs of life as they evoke strong feelings in the reader. Sappho, Homer, William Carlos Williams, Jane Kenyon, and Walt Whitman influence her work, because, she says, “they share in the creation of a sense of life. The immediacy of sensory experience. An inclusiveness of beauty, ugliness, death.”
The images constantly surprise and delight: A train seen from a bedroom window “stitches in and out of sight.” The cat lusts after “a foolishness of sparrows.” “Doves hoo their cries of love, robins’ declarations fill the air. . . . the haunchy calves tumble through the gate, / then the wandery newborns.”
Gentry’s writing is musical, whether in a perfect sonnet, a long narrative, a quatrain, or a form of her own making. Read the poems aloud and enjoy the rhythm and sounds. Their comfortable phrasing makes for smooth reading and easy comprehension. Often, the subject itself is music. In “Waking Up, in May” Gentry writes, “The knowing grackle / trills . . . among expectant leaves.” Then,
In downspouts and gutters,
The event of day’s waking inspires several of Gentry’s poems. “Aubade” realizes that morning still comes, even at times of grief. In “The News” the speaker enjoys the smallest details of another glorious morning:
the slap of my neighbor’s screen door
She makes tender portraits of relatives—parents, aunts, grandparents. The pear tree her father planted years before his death becomes the vehicle for Gentry’s description of him. She draws a sharp picture of her mother by giving us fragments of the diary her mother kept during Gentry’s schoolgirl summer in France.
Gentry understands the importance of the dwelling place. Even the sound of the furnace coming on becomes a musical symbol for life’s contentment. Her earlier book, A Garden in Kentucky, contains a long narrative poem about the fire destroying the house her family had lived in since a great-grandfather built it. In Portrait, “A Human House” describes the primal pleasure in being in one’s own house, making an ode to its quotidian sights and chores:
All day to inhabit!
Descriptions of lovemaking are beautifully allusive, as in “By Your Small Lake” :
At dusk I sit in the leftover sunshine
And in “Penelope’s Night Out,” the narrator went with her lover to a party where she “chatted up a temptress in whose thrall / you once were held.”
“Nearby” is a length of Liberty lawn, that fine flowery cotton used for summer dresses:
I doze on a bench in a garden.
We don’t know what the shadow forebodes. Its dramatic contrast to the sensuous delights of the summer afternoon reminds us that this Eden lies in the real world.
Gentry writes about death in all its stages:
I arise from the grave of the bed.
the blood drumming
The narrator sighs as she sits beside her dying aunt: “no point to being here except being / here with you still being.” “The Reading Lamp” wraps pathos and nostalgia for lost relatives around a gooseneck lamp:
On Grandfather’s eighty-eighth birthday
I alone have lived to tell this
Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig is a joy to read. The poems vary in form and subject, but they are always perfect, always delightful, never maudlin. Gentry conveys her emotions well, and in doing so, arouses our own. We learn much about Jane Gentry, both poet and poet’s persona, the loves and sorrows of that life, while she hones our perceptions of the world.
Jane Gentry is the author of Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig (Louisiana State University Press, 2006), A Year in Kentucky: A Garland of Poems (Press Eight Seventeen, 2005), and a Garden in Kentucky (Louisiana State Press, 1995). Her poems have been published in the journals Sewanee Review, Harvard Magazine, Southern Poetry Review, American Voice, Humanities in the South, and others. Her honors include a Yaddo Fellowship and a Voices and Visions grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. She teaches at the University of Kentucky.