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Poetry Chapbook Review: Impossible Lessons by Jennifer Bullis

Impossible LessonsA hard copy of Impossible Lessons for today’s review was provided by MoonPath Press.

Poet Jennifer Bullis’ debut chapbook Impossible Lessons celebrates the mundane and familiar with thoughtful poems. Bullis writes poetry of place, reporting from corners of the Pacific Northwest, the poet’s mind, and locales both regional and temporal. She chooses precise yet simple words for each poem, with nothing overstated, and nothing left untethered.

“Test Kitchen” is one of my favorite poems in the book, probably because it contains familiar touch points, like “I begin making coffee, lift my eyes to the window—”. Rather than spinning off reams of convoluted thought, Bullis grounds us in a kitchen engaged by a distracted attendant. For me, the scene grows more familiar with each line. I too wonder, just “How do you funnel all your intentions / into a one-teaspoon poem?” By setting her poems among common things, people, and situations, Bullis disencumbers her verse to leverage more substantial ideas. She demonstrates this with another kitchen-based poem “Body, Blood” wherein she unifies the mundane, “standing over the sink de-boning a chicken,” with the sacred “that my body is in fact already holy but thanks / to the holy chicken will be continuing alive.”

As a homemaker, I am drawn to her kitchen and garden poems. But as a Pacific Northwest native, I feel most at home among her mentions of “gold cottonwoods” who “shuffle their starlings / from one branch to another”, or “a pileated woodpecker” who “works the dead trunk of a newly leaning maple.” When you read poems like “Day After Thanksgiving” or “Walking Wolf Creek Road, Methow Valley, October,” don’t be surprised if you feel thunder and rain raising the hair on your arms. This Northwest backdrop pervades Impossible Lessons, although many places Bullis describes in her poems are not places to visit, but to experience: womanhood and motherhood, anticipation and uncertainty, illness and discomfort, regret and lessons learned, hope and possibility.

These places are accessible to all readers of Impossible Lessons, thanks in part to Bullis’ clean writing style. Bullis uses a readable vocabulary, and pays close attention to sound and rhythm throughout each line. But what really makes her work accessible is that idea I stated earlier of “nothing left untethered.” There are no wishy-washy poems, no half-baked sentiments, no false starts. Bullis is logical, and each poem accordingly reflects a complete thought (or rather, a complete thought process). Her poems articulate a lightning spark, skip over emotional muddles, and move the reader toward acknowledgement, opportunity, next steps. For example, “Cover Letter from the Goddess” orients us to a parent’s challenge, “After some two millennia away / to raise my sons, I seek to reenter the workforce,” contrasts individual with organization, “If you are a locavore, I can grow / an entire village for you to eat,” and considers systems of value, economy, and livelihood, “holding it all together on a shoestring,” all within the greater context of Earth-wide systems, all without cracking a dictionary.

Jennifer BullisThis steady progression employed by each poem makes Impossible Lessons satisfying to read. In her July 2013 interview with The Bellingham Herald, Bullis shares, “My writing process usually involves reading and walking. […] The movement of walking brings my own words forward.” And in the Cascadia Review she writes, “My relationship to the landscape is largely as a pedestrian, and my writing process largely kinesthetic: Poems map themselves out in my mind as I map these places on foot. It makes me happy that for eighteen years now, my shoes have been grass-stained, leaf-covered, and very often wet.” Be it your shoes or your imagination, expect the same results when you read Impossible Lessons: you’re going to travel somewhere fresh yet familiar, and you’ll probably come back with a few pine needles stuck in your hair.