Injecting Dreams into Cows by Jessy Randall

Jessy Randall’s Injecting Dreams into Cows attempts to dismantle quibbles by critics who claim they are unable to engage with new poetry. Randall’s intent becomes clear in “The Nonexistent Orchard.” The poem opens with an epigraph from the New York Times Book Review which paints leading critic Helen Vendler as out of touch and disinterested in contemporary poetics: “Today Vendler seldom reviews poets under 50, since their ‘frames of reference,’ she says, are alien to her. ‘They’re writing about the television cartoons they saw when they were growing up. And that’s fine. It’s as good a resource of imagery as orchards. Only I’ve seen orchards and I didn’t watch these cartoons.’ ”


Vendler’s quote seems to suggest there’s a cultural, generational gap between older and younger poets that can’t be bridged. Throughout Injecting Dreams, Randall questions such attitudes as gross, perhaps wilful, misperceptions. The very title “The Nonexistent Orchard” implies that Vendler’s orchard is nothing more than an idea constructed as a frame of reference for thinking about poetry, a bucolic landscape with nary a zap of electricity. As the poem continues, Randall directly responds to Vendler’s assertion:


Something is wrong with these mirrors.
Could you turn the snow down?
The tornado began without a shadow.
Who’s the hinge on your doors?
The way you feel is the way I am.


Plausibly, the statements about mirrors and snow gently mock primitive attitudes towards television as held by one who had possibly never seen a television before. The question, “Who’s the hinge on your doors?” encourages readers to reconsider their channels of knowledge. As Vendler stands reluctantly at the door’s threshold, Randall goads her from the other side, reconciling the seemingly disparate worlds of cartoons and orchards, even as she (conceivably) concedes that she herself struggles with the ambivalence of imagery.


The entirety of Injecting Dreams happily grapples with the interplay of past and present sources of subject and imagery. The ars poetica that opens the book, “Metaphors,” prepares the reader for the unlikely images and objects that will be juxtaposed to reveal truths to the reader—or perhaps it’s just to poke fun at the idea of metaphors altogether:


A duck is like the moon
because a kid can point at both. A house
is like the sky: both hold things. My heart
is like your heart because both are hearts.
This is like that because both are words. I am
like swimming; battles are like planets. You
are like spots on skin. Whatever I
can think of is like twenty million things
that have never occurred to anyone.
This poem is like a pillow. I hit you with it.


Part of the beauty of the poem (and the book) is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously—after all, it hits you “like a pillow,” not a mace. Randall gently satirizes the poet’s inflated (but necessary) sense of self-importance when she lies to herself, claiming: “Whatever I / can think of is like twenty million things / that have never occurred to anyone.” An astute reader will also smirk as soon as she notices that while the poem is entitled “Metaphors,” the bulk of the comparisons within are technically similes. All silliness aside, Randall rightly makes the point with her “metaphors” that the possibilities to form new connections are endless and increasing all the time. They are the means to understanding what is not always readily apparent, to looking at something with new eyes. Why can’t a cartoon be like an orchard? Why can’t a battle be like a planet? Or vice versa? When they come from the pen (or keyboard) of a skilled poet, there’s no reason to close the door between two images.


Unlike detractors of new poetry, Randall sees correspondences between past and present cultural stories and figures. She pulls directly from Homer, video games, and Orwell, and indirectly from countless other sources as she constructs her new metaphors. “Muppet Suite” is a highlight of the book. In the first of nine parts, Randall introduces the Muppets on The Muppet Show, removing the mask of their silliness to lay bare the human condition:


This one’s job
was to yearn.
This one to love improbably.
This one to be pathetic.
This one to run berserk.
None of the jobs were useful
but we did them very well.


This first section has a juvenile, nursery rhyme feel that belies its pathos. It’s as though Randall is counting off the toes on a Muppet foot—assuming Muppets, like cartoons, have four digits per appendage. Randall ends the suite:


We stand in our compartments, singing.
Our cells have no doors. We are
trapped and free, alone and surrounded.
We’re the new Greek gods.
Even children know our songs.


In Randall’s care the Muppets represent a more twisted side of humanity, rarely seen since “Muppet Faces of Death”. Her insistence on finding gravitas where little or none was intended exposes, even mocks, the human tendency to overdramatize and overwork the enjoyably simple and mundane. That said, she’s not off the mark in labelling the Muppets as “new Greek gods.” Whereas once Greek myth and legend were commonly shared entertainment, currently the Muppets are much more popular, recognizable figures, among the educated and uneducated alike. And while the Muppets can never truly replace the Greek gods when it comes to the shaping and creation of cultures, religions, and art, they’ve moved into their own Pantheon next door.


Arguably, as a part of her effort to bridge the Vendler gap, Randall includes in this collection many poems about the common and timeless struggles of marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. “The Caveman and the Spacewoman” paints a sad, yet ridiculous picture of two people who, while thousands of generations apart, find themselves domestically connected:


Can you believe we’ve had two children together? asked the
caveman. The spacewoman remained silent, her helmet hiding her
expression. Milk leaked through the top part of her astronaut suit.
The caveman asked if he could have the rest of the spacewoman’s
pork chop. She passed it to him and he gnawed the bone.


The dramatic situation is implausible, yes, even cartoonish, but it is highly effective at communicating emotion and allows for a variety of new ways to view the characters of the caveman and the spacewoman—characters who, left to their archetypal environments and tropes, might come off as stale. It’s not unusual for men to be compared to cavemen. What takes the reader by surprise is the coexistence of the “spacewoman.” She’s advanced. She’s the future. At its core, this poem illustrates the intersection of emblematic images of the past and the future, and the result is a messy, miserable, yet comedic present, and you don’t have to watch cartoons to “get it.”


By the end of Injecting Dreams into Cows Randall has created a time kabob that’s both relevant and engrossing by successfully skewering the past, present, and future. It’s unlikely that even Vendler, from deep in her orchard, would be able to resist the draw of Randall’s imagination—she may even unleash her own.


More Jessy Randall:

Visit Randall’s author site

Randall at Red Hen Press

Randall at the Poetry Foundation

Buy this book and others from Powell’s

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