Bearded prophet poets, working-class rock star heroes, and philosophizing mobsters—think of the most eloquent spokespersons for the American character and you’ll end up thinking about New Jersey. From Walt Whitman’s reflections on the Camden docks to Tony Soprano’s view from a car exiting the Holland Tunnel, New Jersey offers a glimpse into our working-class, immigrant, urban and—often masculine—psyche. Our strip-malls and swamp lands, superfund sites and subdivisions, beaches and pine barrens remain a source of unending national interest—equal parts fascination and morbid curiosity—that has earned New Jersey a special place in the American imaginary. Massachusetts can have its Robert Frosts and Robert Lowells, New Jersey lays claim to poets such as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka.
Two recently published first books of poetry, Betsy Andrews’ New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press, $14.95) and John Hennessy’s Bridge and Tunnel (Turning Point Press, $17.00), offer a next generation’s startlingly surreal and surprising poignant perspectives on New Jersey lives and landscapes. With unflinching vision and generosity, they remind us how much we still have to learn from New Jersey.
“The Turnpike made place replacing places,” writes Betsy Andrews early in her book-length poem, New Jersey, winner of the University of Wisconsin’s 2007 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Andrews takes readers on a dark, funny, lyrical drive along the New Jersey Turnpike, a roadway that acts for Andrews as the spine of the tragicomic beast we call America at the inauspicious turn of the 21st century:
behind the sonic barricades
cordoning off the casualty roll call from
Pennsville, Westville, Groveville, Yardville
Robbinsville, Belleville, Bernardsville, Somerville
a moment of happiness in a heap in the road
a calendar year where 10 days go missing
“This stuff doesn’t happen in New Jersey.”
In lieu of narrative, this ride gains velocity from repetitions—recurring quotes from US soldiers in Iraq, “unnamed intelligence officers,” and commanders at Guantánamo Bay; an intermittent first-person; moments in New Jersey’s past and recent history—all of which stream by like mile-markers. The poem moves like the road itself: “the Turnpike, a constant snapping apart/ a constant pounding together new relationships between scattered forms.”
A deft and incisive creator of lists, Andrews inventories the crops grown in New Jersey (soybeans, peaches, eggplants, onions) and the toxins in its air (arsenic, mercury, cyanide, zinc), as well as Turnpike exits and names of towns. It is a move that recalls Whitman, who provides the book’s epigraph and gets a mention in a recurring list of rest-stops named for famous New Jersey inhabitants, including accomplishments as well as rest stop amenities (“Walt Whitman: Oh Capt My Capt, Calamus, Cinnabon and an ATM”).
Andrews has Whitman’s ear for litanies of nouns and modifiers, but she also shares Ginsberg capacity for apocalyptic vision. And that’s where much of the poem’s strength resides. She manages to create drama from stark juxtaposition and astute observations:
the flatbed tipping up like a sexpot
road crew in orange hard hats taking instruction from a little machine
flyover ramp, bypass, hazard warning, speed limit sign, closed-circuit TV
are no guarantee against the metallic taste of the sauce break
in a mixing bowl of divergent intent
“We don’t give our cops nightsticks
for ornaments,” says Jersey City’s boss
the swamp drops its trashy eyelid
sucks the highway supports like cock
Throughout the book, perhaps Andrews’ greatest accomplishment comes in reminding us that our landscape is not innocent—the war is everywhere: implicit in highway sensors and military convoys, in every mile over which we travel and gallon of gas we consume. In Andrews’ hands, the Turnpike becomes a place of transport and transaction as well as a litmus strip for national greed, paranoia, and stupidity.
If Andrew’s New Jersey is part Whitman, part Ginsberg, John Hennessy’s Bridge and Tunnel evokes the New Jersey of CKWilliams and Robert Pinsky. With a clear view to New Jersey’s city dwellers and the industrial landscapes through which they move, Hennessy forges his poetry from chimneys and causeways, cranes and overpasses.
The book’s first section consists mostly of personae poems devoted to working-class figures—milkmen, paperboys, washerwomen—, family and friends. Hennessy has an almost Gerard Manley Hopkins-like love for the strong stresses of compound words and dizzying internal rhyme, as can be seen in this example from the poem “Irish Washerwomen in the New World:”
Take Great-grandmother Dolan, with her pocket full
of husbands and several spare names, her salt-spit
and snakebite, poker-face, terrier bitch, Donegal
wit, dog-track bag and four-pronged walking stick
Through these characters, the reader realizes that the bridge and tunnel of the book’s title represent more than routes over which many New Jersey natives travel to jobs, lovers, or family in New York City or Philadelphia. These bridges and tunnels also represent life transitions that form the thematic center of this collection. The character Dog-Star, with his love for killing birds, embodies the rage and confusion of adolescence. A father suffers a transient, restless adulthood. In one of the book’s most poignant poems, the speaker recalls the worried but joyous passage into parenthood. Occasionally these anecdotes seem too familiar, and often there’s a kind of neatness in their telling that I want complicated. Still, the characters rendered in Bridge and Tunnel reach beyond autobiographical testimony to demonstrate how the industrial landscape works its dark and powerful influence upon them: “sun half an hour high over Merck, the morning/ divided by smokestack.”
Another series of poems features mythic figures, including Urban, Persephone, Salome, and Pan, who find their tales recast in the Garden State. One of the most successful of these sets the story of Job in the industrial corridor of North Jersey. In his response to Job, an angry God schools Job on the complex system of Northern New Jersey’s industrial spaces.
Have you kept watch beyond the skyline of blue fires
rippling from steel towers, squat brick chimneys
belching jetties of yellow smoke, the networks
of PVC pipe and signal lights, train tracks
and bridges, tug-boat docks and loading cranes.
Here is Hennessy at his best: rendering the strange beauty of a world familiar to anyone who has flown into Newark Airport or exited from the Holland Tunnel. Hennessy’s understanding of that landscape comes from his own experience growing up in New Jersey. But it’s no accident that not a single city is named in the book, while the Exxon refinery and Merck chemical plant serve as place markers and spiritual centers (whose “single gleaming green” became “our Northern Lights”). Hennessy shows us how both city and community become shadowed by industry—although the odd bonds of family and friendship remain.
In 2003, The New York Times ran an article, “A School of Literature That’s Called New Jersey,” in which writer Gregory Jordan quoted editors and academics who extolled a New Jersey literary tradition rivaling that of the South. Jordan explained that the New Jersey School “passes the most crucial test of what constitutes a literary region: many of the writers seem to be engaging in an extended conversation with one another” while at the same time these writers knew how to link New Jersey symbols and circumstance to “larger American dilemmas and myths.”
Andrews and Hennessy support a case for such claims, extending a poetic conversation begun by the likes of Whitman and Williams—and one that continues in the work of emerging poets such as Greg Pardlo, Nancy Kuhl, and Rosa Alcalá. It’s not an idealized version of our national or regional myths. Chances are the New Jersey represented by these writers won’t be replicated in tourist brochures. In fact one of the most compelling claims both Andrews and Hennessy make is that commerce and corporation threaten our sense of place. It’s hard not to worry about the time when the endless repetition of Target—Wal Mart—Best Buy shopping centers will render identical every American highway and city. Still, in the short term, we can be assured that even after Tony Soprano has uttered his last accented proclamation, we have not yet heard the last word from New Jersey.