DAYS OF SHAME & FAILURE
Jennifer L. Knox

Bloof Books, 2015

Here is the end of Jennifer Knox’s poem “Ladies’ Night / Feeling Right”:

“I’ll tell you how I know Tim is gay,” I said.

“How?” she asked. Her genuine interest made me feel good
about what I knew.

“Because he doesn’t eat pussy! That’s why!” I said, and as Tim’s
face slid down his chin, all the people at the bar and behind the
desk began to clap and cheer, and I pivoted on my heel and
marched out through the double glass doors where my unicorn
was waiting and she was like, “How’d that feel?” and I was like,
“Amazing!”

In Knox’s third collection, the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from her are present: deadpan humor, flights into the surreal, clear prose-like language. But her funniness can distract a reader from the fact that, more often than not, once she gets a laugh or three, she’ll keep going, torqueing the comedy uncomfortably until it’s transformed into sorrow.

For example, here’s the opening to “Waiting on the Ambulance”:

This music feels like a paper cut the size of my face, on my face.
Normally, I find this song very relaxing—there’s only two notes,
and the singer’s talking about a cowboy. The way it just kind of
rocks back and forth like a teeter-totter. I was going to say
something about fat people on a teeter-totter but then I thought,
“You could stand to lose a pound or two yourself, kiddo.”

This poem—self-aware and haha-sad—ends with a moment that skirts vulnerability and desperation. In fact, the line between those two states may be where the majority of these poems are set. “Oh moment, / how you blow me,” she writes in “Impulsive Grooming Syndrome”; it’s possible to read the tone of the line as merely clever, but also possible to read it as borderline profound.

Fearless, however, doesn’t mean flawless: the collection does have some poems that don’t really go anywhere, or at least not anywhere offering the strange delights elsewhere available in Days of Shame & Failure. But Knox pushes so hard at the poems, is so willing to write in and through recklessness, that a reader is disposed to overlook her misses. “Sing with splinters / in your tongue—” she writes in “Ballet on the Radio,” and when you read her best poems you’ll believe she knows how it’s done.