I am not a student of poetry, meaning I am not an academic of verse. But I am a lover of poetry and those who write it well. William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Mary Oliver, and my modern day favorite, Billy Collins. Poetry is personal; it is visceral. If I feel something when I read it, then it has done its job. If it makes me cry, smile, or laugh out loud, then it has cracked the space between poetry’s far-too-often perceived pretentiousness and given me art, art for the heart.
Much of what one finds in Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind by Jennifer A. Payne, does just that. The collection is a mixture of photo art, journalistic photography, and verse that runs from social commentary to wide-eyed and microscopic observations. The poems are mostly about connection, how all of us and everything in the universe, even flossers, those weirdly shaped do-dads we use to clean our teeth, are part of the human condition. One of the themes of the book is linked to photographs of found flossers—in parking lots, on grassy knolls, next to a cigarette butt and to vegetation in a nature preserve. In mostly succinct verse, Payne wonders about the universe, the threads that connect and bind, and how even the most obscure items—like flossers—blend into our being, and at the end of the day, belong here just as all of us. I don’t like to compare the works of authors to others, but I could not help feel and read the similarities in the themes to those of Patti Smith’s M Train. Smith’s wonderful book is not poetry, but it is about the ephemeral and the everlasting, the threads between modern life, people, art, nature, and the spirit. Payne takes on the same themes and includes, as Smith does, the photography of what one might call “the instant.” Photography that is of the moment, unpretentious, real, and utterly of the world.
And the verse? Payne has a keen eye and a warm, tender heart. This is evident in poems like “The Times They Are a Changin'” and “Grocery Store: November 2016.” Payne reveals an almost spiritual connection to the lives of others and proves how observation can unfold someone’s story. In “Time Peace,” she wonders about our unbearable links to the clock, how the man-made construct is capable of throwing us off the personal timepiece that ticks inside our souls. Payne takes on nature in several poems, but particularly in “Carpe Diem,” where she touches on the fleeting nature of the natural world and how inattention to wonder—like the flight of a butterfly—can only diminish our well-being.
Other poems like “First” and “Sustenance” are less impactful, falling a little flat for their subjects, but none-the-less important to the overall tenor of this otherwise thoughtful collection, a beautiful undertaking that is more than just a book of ‘poems, but an artful, multi-layered statement about our very humanness and the universe.
The French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo, wrote, “The reduction of the universe to the compass of a single being, and the extension of a single being until it reaches God—that is love.” Jennifer A. Payne expands on those words with an unflinching account of our unshakeable relationship to the modern world around us, God, nature, and ourselves.