Alumnae Poets

Jessica Jacobs '02

Jessica Jacobs

Jessica Jacobs ’02 is a sensuous and erudite writer. In an interview with The Aonian (based at Hendrix College, in Arkansas, where she was writer-in-residence), Jacobs remarked that “the wonder and terror of poetry is that you can write about anything.” Her collection Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press, 2015), details the life of the modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe and, in the words of Christopher Merrill, “discovers a vibrant music rooted in portraiture.” A finalist for the Lambda Literary award and the winner of the 2015 New Mexico Book Award in Poetry, Pelvis with Distance draws on O’Keeffe’s paintings, letters, and personal documents as well as the poet’s own experiences in Abiquiú, New Mexico, where O’Keeffe lived for many years. Jacobs traces O’Keeffe’s path from a Rodin-plastered “bricked-in brownstone” in New York City to the “scalded hills” and “flare-bleached bones” of remote Abiquiú to a Texas dusk “so dark there is no horizon: all feels / like sky”. Her poetic line is sculptural and expressive, ranging from stark couplets and tercets to expansive prose poetry that envelops the whole of the page. Jacobs’ combination of these modes as well as her fusion of ekphrastic, epistolary, and persona poems provide multiple angles to probe the painter’s relationships. Jacobs finds conversation between O’Keeffe and her art critics; the American southwest; her husband, the photographer Alfred Steiglitz; her many friends and correspondents; and––of course––her own paintings. Perhaps most extraordinary is the deep sense of involvement, reciprocity, and spirituality O’Keeffe has for her subject matter. In the poem “Pedernal,” Jacobs describes the Cerro Pedernal mesa in O’Keeffe’s voice, writing “I paint it again and again, claiming / and claimed by it.”

Jacobs’ compelling portrayal of O’Keeffe betrays a strong interest in self-exploration, as well. “In coming to understand O’Keeffe through writing poems in her voice, I came to a far more thorough understanding of myself,” Jacobs says, “both who I was and who I wanted to be.” A series of poems that describe her stay in Abiquiú provide episodic glimpses into her poetic process, as well as what Los Angeles Review writer Alix Anne Shaw calls “the tenuousness and the tenacity of human connections.” While living in complete solitude in a small cabin, the speaker has ample time to meditate on the depth and variety of loneliness. As the collection progresses, she is consumed with memories of a woman from her past referred to only as “the poet”––a lost love of sorts, for whose companionship she now longs. This thread carries through into her 2016 chapbook In Whatever Light Left to Us(Sibling Rivalry Press), which is both a Floridian coming-of-age story “[shining] red with the eyes of alligators” and an aching, radiant expression of love for another woman. These poems, writes Carolyn Ogburn, are “love poems that remind us that perhaps they are still worth writing,” an example of “poetry as incandescence of the ordinary world.” Jacobs’s second full-length collection, Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2019.

Jessica Jacobs majored in English at Smith and went on to earn an MFA from Purdue University. A long distance runner, she has worked as a rock climbing instructor, bartender, editor, and professor. Currently, she serves as associate editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal and lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown.

Select Poems

O’Keeffe, to Stieglitz
[Columbia, SC, to New York, NY; 1915]

They trained us to use our materials as language,
they dictated what we wanted to say.

Unable to paint, I’ve been slaving for weeks
at the violin. Walking in the woods at dusk each day,

I set my chin to its body. But try as I may
to make music, I just noise to other people’s tunes

into the crowns of the trees, which hurl it back,
rooting a forest in my head, with a little found house

inside that. I go there while I play- scrim
the floors with tracing paper. Fear of failure, stone

in my pocket, a measure of charcoal to crawl
these pages. Mother’s sweater beneath my knees,

hands smeared black, every angle
traced out, along with the shapes in my head,

which no one had taught me. I wish I could tell you
what I’ve wanted to say. Instead, here’s this drawing.

From PELVIS WITH DISTANCE (White Pine Press, 2015)

was that I was my own city, my own New York, and you
were a succession of rolling blackouts, rolling through me
the way a shadow, each afternoon, unfurled
from the one ginkgo tree on my block: a rilled eclipse,
a dark slender bar—that mark
                                      of division. On the corner where 11th splits
custody between East and West, we stood
for six years, a foot in either direction. The charge too much
for any wire to hold, we passed it from one to the next in a series
of cascading failures.
              Lights hushed from Houston to Battery Park.
                                                                    Dark as any July 5th
of my Florida childhood: BBQs ashed, bins
clanking with empties, Roman candles gone
to soggy paper. But once, lying alone on a dock, I
watched a meteor bisect the sky
like a thumbnail scoring the skin of a plum.
                                                                     You split me
again and again, your sudden shadow cast across the life
I thought I was living.
                                                   You swore
I’d forgotten you; I’d only wished I could.
So now, let me
            say this: Each time you returned, those nights
you tripped all the breakers, it’s true: traffic lights failed
and pedestrians fled—the tunnels clogged as bad arteries, bridges
quivering above the glossy throat of the East River. But others,
                                                                           others stayed. Opened
windows and kicked off sheets, made love
to battery-powered boomboxes on stoops below
where, from grills carried from fire escapes to sidewalks, neighbors
shared all the food they couldn’t bear to waste. Such toothsome
smells from those feasts against spoilage, those burnt
                                                                     offerings. And later,
                                                                     know there was a moment
when every office, every bar, every apartment in my city
emptied and all of us stood in the streets like the children
we’d taught ourselves not to be—hands on hips, elbows jutting
like wings, heads thrown back—remembering what had been
there all along: the night sky, suddenly visible.

From TAKE ME WITH YOU, WHEREVER YOU’RE GOING (Forthcoming from Four Way Books, 2019)

When the combines brought the fields
to their knees, it was like running 

an arid spreadsheet. Grid by grid,
dutifully, I logged my miles, the hours

on my feet, but kept true account of nothing
so much as my loneliness. Landlocked 

Indiana. The place I’d come, god help me, to try
and find poetry. How long since I’d been held there, 

even by water, given my weight to another
medium? All winter, the sky was desolate

white of a mussel’s middle leeched by cold
of its gasoline glimmer. Static

landscape, untongued by tides. No dunes,
just windrowed cornstalks

crusted with snow. Yet constant
as lighthouses were the turbines. Idle,

they were sky-flung starfish
far from the sea, but moving they were

majestic, amphibious animals in their proper
element. Able to arc into the unseeable and return

with power. For three years, I tried to do the same.
But instead was desiccated, field-stripped, brittled

down to parts. All I could do was write until my sentence
ended. And in my final Midwestern week:

there you were. Beside me as my headlights slid
the storm-slick streets. Submerged

together without stars or streetlights, a turbine’s
red light pulsed its beacon through the rain. Beneath it,

your hands bound me back together. In answering
prayer, I folded myself into the footwell; knelt

between your knees. And
my mouth to you was every water

I’d ever tasted: clean shock
of snowmelt in an alpine pond; tongue cased

in ocean’s wetsuit of salt; green and mineral
of a springfed lake—

but most of all,
chlorine’s high bite in the throatback

of every Florida pool in summer, the water
so bath-warm, so body-kindred, that entering

was like sliding into another skin—skin
that entered you back. 

From TAKE ME WITH YOU, WHEREVER YOU’RE GOING (Forthcoming from Four Way Books, 2019)

I. Gehinnom


If Hell is less fiery furnace

than a mirrored room


with all the lights

left on, with nowhere to hide


that what burns

is within us − all the guilt


and sorrow from

which we now can’t look


away, then let us

accept our faces


as they are; let us remember

that one word,


doloket, means both

in flames and full of light


and know our pain

can be a source of sight. 

II. I am Afraid to own a Body − I am Afraid to own a Soul −


In Eden, garments of light sufficed, each human a lantern

lit from within, inextricable


from their ignition − but now, banished,

these dim skin suits. In our chests, though,


a firefly: its faint flares, its cold glow. Lonely lighthouses,

each of us. We blink, we beacon, we long to chorus, we wait


for a blaze in return, until − there! − allied, we pulse one

to the next; bind in divine


synchrony: for a moment, the whole

planet a field of fallen stars. And from this ensemble


bonfire, like smoke scorching from the narrows

of a throat, our fears. A cry


not for ownership but communion, a cry to be answered

with expanse

of air, of wind, of ruach, that godbreath,


gentling in toward every torn thing, its breach

however meager − moving leaf into leaves, melding


body to soul, making of every opening a mouth and

setting us all to singing. Can you hear it?


A torch song for the kindred world, this fleeting one

we’re searching for. 

III. Prayer for the Word Made Light


Bathe the window within us

in photo-sensitive silver. Let us


aperture. Let us dilate. What lasts

is what is found


by light. Negatives of the divine,

let us enter the stop bath


of the ordinary world. Where

we are most vulnerable, most


exposed, that’s what makes

the print. We become


what is burned into us: what

we open ourselves to.

(from The Map of Every Lilac Leaf: Poets Respond to the Smith College Museum of Art, 2020)

Poetry Center Reading

Fall 2017