Equivalents: Jessica Baran’s Panoramic Vision

“Language had become flabby,” Jessica Baran writes in the overture to her collection Equivalents. “No one had been minding their words.”

An ironic lament for a poet whose own language is so subtle, so finely attuned to the complications of what we say and what we mean. Following 2010’s Remains to be Used, Equivalents is Baran’s second poetry collection, published by Lost Roads Press as the winner of the Besmilr Brigham Women Writers’ Award, an honor bestowed on female writers living outside the major coastal U.S. cities.

Mary Jo Bang calls these poems “perfect examples of how well the lyric mode can succinctly interrogate existence.” From familiar phrases slightly altered or misheard (“the anxiety of affluence”) to unlikely ephemera (“the ashtray that reads better next time”), Baran keeps the reader off-balance. We savor the precision and beauty of her poetic tableaux without knowing exactly where they will lead us.

It’s telling that Equivalents is also the title of a series of pictures taken by Alfred Stieglitz in the ‘20s and ‘30s, that many regard as the first abstract works of photography. (The book cover features lovely Stieglitz-inspired work by St. Louis artist Gina Alvarez.) Baran’s sentences often flirt with abstraction, and they enact the paradox of photography: they are perfect, small compositions that reflect the flux and impermanence they depict.

“We reviewed the camping notes,” a seemingly throwaway line from one of Baran’s “On Dailiness” sonnets, feels more and more like an artistic credo: this is a limber, transitional poet who finds some of her best stuff on the move, with the result that these poems sound like an actual mind at work, grasping for some kind of permanence or solidity in the rush of daily, often banal impressions. As Baran puts it, with characteristic compression and the slightest sadness, “News passes.”

The amazing long poem that closes the collection, “The Panorama,” is Baran’s best work to date, IMHO, and it crystallizes many of the collection’s themes. The poem is based on the 1850 painting, The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, which was exhibited at the St. Louis Art Museum in 2011 (panoramas were a popular form of proto-cinematic entertainment in the 19th century). “The Panorama” has a slow, stately rhythm – it’s the only poem in the collection with line breaks – and it convincingly speaks on some of Baran’s favorite themes: the difficulty of knowing the past, of accessing the present, the slippages between high and low culture, and the ability of art to offer us something stunning that eludes or confounds our understanding.

“You may say it’s vulgar,” Baran writes. “But you’re wrong.”

Jessica Baran will be reading her work with Jennifer Kronovet, the co-founder of the fort gondo reading series, at Left Bank Books on Tuesday, April 16. The reading begins at 7:00 PM and a signing will follow.

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