By Betsy Andrews
Published January 2007
Date reviewed: August 29, 2007
Originally reviewed at: BookReview.com
The first image that comes to mind when I think of New Jersey is the opening montage from “The Sopranos,” an image anyone who’s seen the show knows is less than pleasant. There is decaying concrete and metal, dreary views of water and a haze that seems to permeate every aspect of the city. It summarizes the world that the show’s characters inhabit, and also shows the stereotype of the state as bitter and decayed.
Poet Betsy Andrews sees the exact same jaded atmosphere – but unlike others who turn it into a punchline, she embraces it in her book-length poem “New Jersey.” In a sprawling epic format reminiscent of Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg, Andrews takes the reader on a drive that shows us the state’s soul as much as it does its exterior.
Andrews sees every ugly aspect of the Garden State, painting a picture of desolate bureaucracy and manufacturing centers falling apart in a way that evokes an affectionate regret for what has been built. But her poem is not just about Jersey – in ruined buildings she reminds us of American troops stomping through Iraq, and in the chemical pollution we see the country’s veins running with poison. Her poetry is an observation of our own wreckage, and almost critical of any who would cruise past it without paying attention.
This culture and insight is a clear descendant of Beat poetry, and Andrews evokes their frustrated voices perfectly. Verses such as “dog like a cat mewling, magnetically encoded toll ticket emitting its supple wave/notion of isolationism in tempered vision, molded petroleum, as steel and buoyant as a feather” are rich in Ginsberg’s articulate sensuality and Jack Kerouac’s blues-like poetic rhythm.
The poem is also strengthened by several recurring phrases and poetic devices. A chorale provides the dual nature of the state, taking accomplished residents and pairing them with fast food outlets “and an ATM.” The imagery of an elephant is used repeatedly, and its behavior – gorging itself on whatever it can find, forming a part of the architecture or lumbering down the turnpike – provides the feeling of an unknown, inexorable force incapable of direction.
Though it doesn’t come to a dramatic conclusion (my only complaint – it seemingly stopped in mid-verse), the poem is overall a captivating and well-crafted read. Andrews takes the poetic form and does something seemingly impossible: she goes into the depths of industrial Jersey and makes you want to look closer.