‘Shaping’ by Jayne Anne Phillips

‘Secret Poem’: ‘Shaping’ by Jayne Anne Phillips, introduced by Rebecca Goss (written for Plume journal’s newsletter, US)

Born in West Virginia in 1952, Jayne Anne Phillips is a novelist and short story writer.  Her pamphlet-sized collectionSweetheartswas published when she was in her early twenties and is referred to as a collection of ‘pieces’. I’ve always read these pieces as prose poems, and one of them I’d like to look closely at here.

In ‘Shaping’ a mother and daughter bake and talk. Nothing unusual about that, but something happens. Woman and girl establish a confidence through their actions and the kitchen morphs into a confessional space. The poem opens with small, concentrated movements:

‘We stand in the kitchen making crescent rolls.  She shapes pale dough

into twisted moons. I color them yellow

with my buttered brush, its bristles

dig tiny patterns

in the smooth white.’

I love the synchronized intimacy to it: ‘She shapes…I color’. Words like ‘making’, ‘buttered’, ‘dig’, ‘smooth’ emphasise the notion of touch and closeness. As these figures twist the dough, Phillips twists the poem itself.  Line breaks carefully curve and wind. We read at a pace that reflects the considered time taken to prepare the goods, and let a story unfold.

“I felt nothing

but relief the day my father died.”

In this shift from raw ingredients to raw emotions, a man is remembered. A man who ‘lost his money and his mind slowly.’  Episodes of erratic, alarming behaviour are described:

‘I bought myself a chinchilla coat. One night

he put it on and went out to the barn to spread fertilizer’

Phillips creates dramatic tension with coat seams ‘splitting’, trash ‘burning’, a pitchfork ‘blazing’ and the story builds to its conclusion:

‘A couple of weeks later a guard knocked him down

and he died.’

By this point ‘the cookie sheet of crinkled moon is full’. Mother and daughter have not stopped baking; I imagine not even turned to look at one another, as words spilled out into this warm, domestic space. The poem is ‘moving’ constantly with the act of cooking, the progression of memories the mother is recalling, her father’s actions. We can’t ignore the relevance of the title and how this poem embraces the act of making.  Not only biscuits being made here, but also an attempt to make sense of the past, hold it; give it some sort of form.  Even the coat with its ‘color of honeycomb’ makes us think of bees, nature’s ultimate makers. The baking, itself a domiciliary feat, becomes a source, a spring, from which mother and daughter can share something difficult and haunting.

I love the way this poem is full of hands.  They twist dough, pull at sheets, carry buckets, knock a man down. At the end of the poem, hands open an oven door and there is a pouring of heat into the room ‘like a pealing of bells’.  A peal is a sound that can only come from hands taking hold of a sally, pulling that tail stroke down, a series of rings released into the sky. And this is what I always feel, every time I come to the end of this poem, that we have witnessed a release. An emotional understanding has been reached, and a new, more healing memory made.

Shaping

We stand in the kitchen making crescent rolls.  She shapes pale dough

into twisted moons. I color them yellow

with my buttered brush, its bristles

dig tiny patterns

in the smooth white. “I felt nothing

but relief the day my father died.” My mother’s

voice is broken.                “He was much older than mother,

lost his money and his mind slowly. When my friends

stayed with me           he used to stride into the room

pull the sheets off us and tell them to

get dressed, he didn’t want

strangers in his house at night. In highschool

I bought myself a chinchilla coat. One night

he put it on and went out to the barn to spread fertilizer. I

remember standing by the window

watching him carry buckets of manure from cowyard to garden, the

shoulder seams already splitting

silk lining

the color of honeycomb. ‘Leave him alone,’

mother said, ‘He doesn’t know

what he’s done.’ Then one autumn we were

burning trash up on the hill. He

picked up a pitchfork of blazing leaves

and chased mother around the fire. After that

we had to have him put away.

The morning they came and got him

he turned at the door and said calmly, ‘Gracie,

aren’t you coming with me?’

A couple of weeks later a guard knocked him down

and he died.’ The cookie sheet of crinkled moon is full. She

picks it up and bends

to the oven.  As she

opens the door its

heat falls into the room like

a pealing of bells.

(from Sweethearts, by Jayne Anne Phillips, Wingbow/Truck Press, 1976).

 Jayne Anne Phillips was born and raised in West Virginia. Her first book of stories, Black Tickets, published in 1979 when she was 26, won the prestigious Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Featured in Newsweek, Black Tickets was pronounced “stories unlike any in our literature…a crooked beauty” by Raymond Carver and established Phillips as a writer “in love with the American language.” She was praised by Nadine Gordimer as “the best short story writer since Eudora Welty” and Black Ticketshas since become a classic of the short story genre. Her works have been translated and published in twelve foreign languages. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Howard Fellowship, and a Bunting Fellowship from the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College. She has taught at Williams College, Boston University, Harvard University, and Brandeis University, and is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Rutgers Newark MFA Program (www.ncas.rutgers.edu/mfa) at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sweethearts-Jayne-Anne-Phillips/dp/0916562050

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