I have been a huge Jena Strong fan for a very long time, and I was delighted when I heard that she was releasing a book of poems, Don’t Miss This. I ordered it immediately. I tried to read it slowly, savoring Jena’s characteristically gorgeous words which somehow manage to be both as intimate as the body and as universal as the cosmos at the same time.
Don’t Miss This is a memoir told in poems. The memoir is broken into three parts: She Who Stays, Landmine, and What I’ll Miss, and traces Jena’s cataclysmic realization a couple of summers ago that shatters the life she knows into a million pieces. Jena’s poems are some of those pieces, their sparkling blindingly brilliant and beautiful.
The concluding stanza of Desert Woman, in the book’s first section, is an achingly lovely assertion that where we came from has value, no matter how scorched it’s earth:
For this is what I know:
one day we will return to visit,
stronger and more humble still,
to honor this desert
of what we passed through,
of what moved through us.
I read these lines and shivered, thinking that they captured what the whole of what Don’t Miss This is: a benediction of what was, before a grenade went off and altered it forever. Jena writes both from that before and also from now, looking back on it.
Landmine, the book’s central section, begins with land mine/blindside, a poem whose drumbeat cadence speaks of a truth coming finally, irrevocably to light. Jena writes of her daughters: “you cannot protect them/by staying small/or living in fear” and later poignantly acknowledges that “the coming together/and the falling apart are the same.” This section is full of lines where beginnings and ends are conflated, and we feel Jena’s future pulling her forward like a horse at a gallop, straining against loyalties and the power of what she thought her life would be like.
I spent the day with this absence
unsure if I was coming or going
departing or arriving
losing the poem or remembering the poem
forgetting or remembering
In In the Absence of a Departure we see the way many strands of a life can be tangled in a single explosive moment. All the poems in Landmine are animated by tremendous emotion and passion, an eruption of a long-buried truth, but they are also limned with the loss that is woven through the fabric of Jena’s new life. As Landmine concludes, we sense a new peace ringing in Jena’s words. Silver Moon ends with a simple statement that reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s formal feeling: “My heart, for all its aching/smiles quietly.”
In What I’ll Miss, the third section of the book, Jena’s voice takes on a new rhythm, hypnotic and reverent, as we watch her sink into her new life. There are still moments of anger and despair, like in The Perfect Storm, but there is also glowing, radiant acceptance of what simply is. Jena speaks lyrically of what I would describe as midlife’s central task: letting go of what we thought it was going to be so that we can embrace how it is. When she speaks of holding a life whose contours are unfamiliar, I feel goosebumps of familiarity.
It is simple, really,
a slideshow, a retrospective
that bends and curves in shapes
we never expected to learn
but can come to love
These lines, in There is a Picture, resonate and stayed with me after I finished Don’t Miss This. Jena’s gorgeous memoir, whose words fairly glimmer with truth, pain, and wonder is nothing so much as her writing her way to loving her life. Her life as it is, even though it looks nothing like it did a few years ago and certainly not at all how she thought it would. This life, this radiance, this heartbreak. Don’t Miss This traces the flare of lightning in the sky of a life. Jena’s poems show how that lightning reverberates and changes the very texture of the darkness it split open, and they celebrate and honor the new shape left in the wake of the storm.
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