Fiddler Crab

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Fiddler Crab

Josephine Jacobsen

"Fiddler Crab" was, according to the chronological sections in Josephine Jacobsen's collection of poetry In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems (1995), written between 1950 and 1965. Unfortunately, no exact date is available for the poem's original publication. In fact, since this collection is subtitled New and Collected Poems, the poem may have been written between 1950 and 1965 but not published before its inclusion in this collection.

"Fiddler Crab" is a good example of a primary theme that runs through Jacobsen's entire body of work. In this poem, Jacobsen explores the connectivity between all living things and God through her observation of a fiddler crab on the beach. This poem conveys religious principles through a narrative storyline. Her decision to deliver her beliefs in this fashion is intentional and, in fact, makes the poem timeless.

Regardless of when it was written or published, "Fiddler Crab" resonates with Jacobsen's religious exploration and understanding. Where other poems may reflect on society, Jacobsen's poetry reflects upon God and the exploration of the human soul. With this at the helm of Jacobsen's thought, her poetry is written without a social reference. Her work is far too personal to be tied to anything but her own search for truth and understanding. Jacobsen was a self-proclaimed devout Catholic, and although her work is rich spiritually, it is rarely preachy. Her message is warm, clever, and devout. With her massive, far-reaching collection of work, Jacobsen is heralded as one of the finest, most respectable poets of the twentieth century.

Author Biography

Josephine Jacobsen was born August 19, 1908, in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. Soon after her birth, Jacobsen's family moved from Canada to New York. The Jacobsens then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, when Josephine was fourteen years old. She was educated by private tutors at Roland Park Country School and graduated in 1926.

Jacobsen was renowned as a poet, short-story writer, and critic. She served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973 (a position that has since been renamed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry) and as honorary consultant in American letters from 1973 to 1979. In addition to these duties, Jacobsen was the vice president of the Poetry Society of America in 1978 and 1979. Jacobsen was also a member of both the literature panel for the National Endowment of the Arts and the poetry committee of Folger Library from 1979 to 1983.

Somehow, amidst all these remarkable responsibilities, Jacobsen was able to write numerous collections, including, but not limited to, The Instant of Knowing: Lectures on Criticism, and Occasional Prose (1997); What Goes without Saying: Collected Short Stories (1996); In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems (1995), a collection spanning nearly sixty years of writing; The Chinese Insomniacs (1981); and The Shade-Seller: New and Selected Poems (1974). Her extraordinary writing career spanned an astounding eight decades, with her first poem published in a children's magazine at the age of ten.

In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems is Jacobsen's most expansive collection of poetry. The book is broken into five sections, each section covering a portion of Jacobsen's life as a poet. The second section of the collection spans the years 1950–1965 and includes the poem "Fiddler Crab." This poem is a timeless work that is an excellent example of Jacobsen's thinking and writing. In this poem, Jacobsen explores religion and God, concluding that the universe and all creatures are tied together by the struggle for survival. This theme features in the bulk of Jacobsen's writing and interviews, acting as a personal mantra about her understanding of her own life, all life, and God.

Jacobsen's clear, resounding voice and her exploration of the spiritual world garnered her great praise. In 1988, she won the L. Marshal Award for the best book of poetry. She was awarded the Shelley Memorial Award for lifetime service to literature in 1993 and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994. Additionally, the Poetry Society of America gave her its highest honor—the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry—in 1997. Jacobsen's awards and honors also include a Doctor of Humane Letters from Goucher College, the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, Towson State University, and Johns Hopkins University. Jacobsen died July 9, 2003, in Cockeysville, Maryland, at the age of ninety-four.

Poem Text

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Poem Summary

Stanza 1

In the opening stanza of "Fiddler Crab," Jacobsen describes the fiddler crab as it moves through its routine on the beach. The prehistoric beast "veers," "glides," and "dithers." It repeats its motions endlessly, over and over, as if it is completing its necessary tasks. With this descriptive stanza, Jacobsen intends to draw similarities between the fiddler crab and other organisms. She compares the crab to a horse, stating the crab's "front legs paw the air like a stallion." However, the crab relates to more than just a stallion. The crustacean's activities are similar to those of human beings. Both organisms go through their regular routines. Whether it is a human being moving and shifting through society or a crab veering and dithering about on the beach, both organisms are living their lives just as they believe they should.

Jacobsen also alludes to the crab's power to observe, stating, "the stilt-eyes / pop," as if to imply that the crab is observing his surroundings and assessing his next move. This gives the crab human traits, grouping the organisms together into an expansive, undefined category.

Stanza 2

In the second stanza, Jacobsen portrays the crab's world: the rocky beach and the shifting tide. The water on the beach moves over the rocks, and "foam yelps leaping." The big rocks are "glutted with breathers under their clamped clasp." Jacobsen is describing the rocks covered with barnacles and other shellfish, holding desperately to the rocks as the waves wash over them, creating frothy, turbulent waters. She alludes to the waves as a "lacy wink" that "lapses and dulls."

The waves on the beach move unhindered over the rocks and the sand. The rocks and the sand compose the society in which the crab exists. The waves represent time as it "lapses and dulls" society, crashing over and over again against the rocky beach. Like the waves, time can move fast or slowly, be disruptive or benign. Yet no matter how time washes over one and changes one's life for better or worse, time itself is completely amoral. The impact of time is easy to see—people age, the sun rises and sets, the seasons pass—what goes unanswered is why time does what it does. Jacob-sen's answer is linked to the concept of amorality. Time is amoral because it works beyond any moral code. Time passed before there were human beings, and time will continue to pass after the end of human beings; thus it is set apart from that which would be considered right or wrong, moral or immoral. It is without an ethical code, because it exists outside the realm of moral judgment. Hence, the crab is affected by time similarly to a human being precisely because time makes no distinction between the crab and a human being.

Generally, a person is not disturbed when someone kills a crab. Most people, however, are disturbed when a human being kills a fellow human being. Time makes no such distinction. The morality of these two actions is outside the scope of time, as are all forms of morality. With these lines, the fiddler crab becomes just as dramatically affected by time as humankind, binding the organisms together at a level beyond, yet still anchored in, the physical world.

Stanza 3

In the third stanza, Jacobsen enters the poem as a first-person voice. She witnesses and observes the crab's plight and struggle against the tide. She writes, "I saw the fiddler crab veer, glide, prance, / dither and paw, in elliptical rushes / skirt the white curve and flatten on the black / shine." The crab is battling against the elements, trying its best to survive and live well as the tide rushes forward. Jacobsen is empathizing with the crab from the common ground that all organisms must battle the elements of the world and struggle against them for survival. The crab rushes into a "trembling hole" to avoid the crushing surf. Jacobsen would argue that all creatures must, at some point, seek a safe haven from the uncontrollable tempests or face the only other alternative: death. With this, Jacobsen indirectly frames life as the struggle for survival that occurs between a creature's birth and its death.

Stanza 4

In the fourth stanza, Jacobsen reveals that she is standing on the beach with the crab. This draws her directly into the crab's world, intricately tying Jacobsen to this particular fiddler crab. The two suddenly are not of separate worlds; they are simply affected by different elements, in different ways, within the same world. She writes, "I imitated him with my five fingers, but not well." The crab is much better at being a crab than Jacobsen is. However, when the crab comes out of his hole, he runs in a "tippity panicky glide to the wave's wink," showing that Jacobsen is much better at being a human than the crab is, because Jacobsen does not have to run or hide from the wave's power. Last, Jacobsen writes, "Each entirely alone on his beach; but who / is the god of the crabs?" Although Jacobsen has identified that she and the crab coexist in the same world and that both creatures' lives are defined by their individual struggles for survival in the world, Jacobsen questions what god has created the crab's world.

Stanza 5

In this fifth stanza, Jacobsen returns to strict observation and gives a short narrative about the crab's final moments. She writes,

The Spanish-Chinese boy brought him to show.
 His stilted eyes popped over three broken legs
 but he ran with the rest of them over the edge
 and died on the point of the drop down
 twenty feet.

Jacobsen tells the story of the boy and of the crab plunging to its death. The crab struggled to free himself from the boy. After freeing himself, the crab tried to run for safety, plunging to his death twenty feet below. This moment in conjunction with the crab's birth frames the crab's life and ends its struggle against the elements of the world.

Stanza 6

In the final stanza, Jacobsen sees the simplicity of existence in the crab's death. She writes, "So it is simple: he can be hurt / and then he can die." After all her observations and conclusions about the differences and similarities between herself and the crab, Jacobsen ends with a base understanding of life as pain and the struggle against death. Although it may take on different forms—for example, for the crab it was the surf and the Spanish-Chinese boy, whereas it may be an earthquake or cancer for a human being—all creatures face the same essential challenge for survival. If this is accepted as true, then, as Jacobsen professes at the end of "Fiddler Crab," the "subject matter we [all] have in common . . . is our god."


The Levels of Time

In Jacobsen's poem "Fiddler Crab," time is a principal theme. Time plays a tricky role in the lives of most humans. Frequently, time seems to pass at differing rates. Sometimes it flies by, and at other moments it creeps. When a person looks back on events from the past, some of them seem as if they happened only yesterday, while others seem as if they happened to a different person, in a different life. Oddly, these feelings may not be hinged to events chronologically. In fact, more often than not, the variable feeling of the passage of time is intricately tied to the suffering of the individual. For example, in Jacobsen's own life, she recalled a wonderful day spent with her husband some twenty years in the past, which seemed to have just taken place. But when she recollected her grandson's death—a painful event that occurred long after the wonderful day spent with her husband—she told Evelyn Prettyman in an interview for New Letters, "I remember when I went back to our summer house the summer after our grandson's death . . . it seemed to me that there were hundreds of years between that summer and the summer before." This level of time is a pervasive theme in "Fiddler Crab" and in all of Jacobsen's work.

In the poem, it is fair to assume that time is similar to the tide and the waves. This is metaphoric on several levels. First, time seems to happen in irregular intervals. The waves represent the strange, unpredictable moments in time. The tide, like minutes, hours, days, and weeks, can be predicted and plotted. However, the moments—the waves—still remain an unpredictable mystery. Just as time clearly passes from today to tomorrow, so do the tides shift from high to low, but from moment to moment the waves that hit the shore are like the mysterious instances that cause humans to feel a strange relationship to time and its passing. These mysterious instances happen in the present. The effects that follow are unpredictable. When an event happens, a moment passes, a person does not know its effect until it is over and the person has reflected upon it. In the poem, most of the waves that the crab struggles against are nothing remarkable and so have little impact on his life. But the one wave that washes him into the boy's hands, or off to sea, or into a fertile feeding ground will have a profound effect on his life, though he is unaware of this impact until that particular, mysterious instance has passed.

From a different perspective, time frames existence. For Jacobsen, life is a struggle for survival, with a beginning and an end. At birth a creature comes into being and effectively starts surviving, starts living; at death the creature stops surviving, stops living. This simplistic understanding of time is applicable across the board to the lives of all creatures. That there is a beginning and an ending to life is true for all creatures, human or not. Since Jacobsen believes that the gift of life is given by God, all life, human or not, comes from God. Without time framing life, it would be difficult for Jacobsen to reach the conclusion that life is the same for all creatures and that God is the same for all creatures.

Topics For Further Study

  • In "Fiddler Crab," Jacobsen draws a connection between herself as a human being and the fiddler crab she observes on a beach. Her poem intricately ties humanity to all living things through shared suffering, struggle, and death. This commonality leads Jacobsen to assume that all living things share the same god. Research Native American beliefs and the ways in which their observations connect humans to animals. How do the beliefs of Native Americans mirror or oppose Jacobsen's understanding?
  • Select an animal that you feel mimics your life and write a poem describing the animal, its movements and activities in the world, and its relation to you. Beyond simple observation of the animal, try to draw similarities between the animal and your physical manifestation as well as any connectivity you might detect about the animal's essence and your own being. On the other hand, if you find no connectivity between your being and the animal's or if you do not believe in the concept of a soul in general or that either you or the animal has a soul, express this opinion through your poem.
  • Jacobsen was a devout Catholic, and although her work is not heavily religious, it does carry a clear spiritual message. What other stories or poems have you read that also carry a spiritual message? Select one other story or poem and try to draw a link between the work and a particular religion or spiritual path.
  • Jacobsen began writing poetry and fiction at the age of ten. Her work was always heavily influenced by her Catholic upbringing, and her devotion to Catholicism did not waver. Select another poet from the twentieth century with a large corpus of work spanning many decades and choose a variety of poems from his or her expansive collection. Do you notice a change in the feeling or motive of the work as the poet ages? Explain your selected poet's transformation, or lack thereof, in a short essay.

These analyses of time, no matter how interesting, come from a human dissection of something eternal. They cannot be wholly explained with common intellectual analysis. Jacobsen often delves into these profound questions in her poetry. In this case, she accepts that she will never be able to fully understand the impact of time because, effectively, they lead to questions about God. For Jacobsen, the unanswered questions about God are satisfied by her faith in the Catholic Church. Faith and religion fill the holes left by her human dissection of time and the unanswerable questions about God. Without her leap of faith, these questions would remain unsatisfied.

Life as Survival

In "Fiddler Crab," Jacobsen observes a crab's existence and, in doing so, defines life as the struggle for survival against the elements of the world. The crab must battle the never-ending pounding of the surf. The crab "fiddles, glides and dithers / dithers and glides, veers" in a ceaseless dance to continue living. Later, Jacobsen notes that the fiddler crab, "veered in a gliding rush / and up to piled sand and into a trembling hole / where grains fell past him." The crab not only dances about, dodging the surf, but also must take shelter in holes and "skirt the white curve [of the wave] and flatten on the black shine." The crab's existence on the rocky beach is nothing but a moment-to-moment struggle for survival against the constant, aggressive assault from an amoral force: the surf. As if this daily routine were not enough, the crab must also survive other elements: other creatures.

In the poem, "two hours later," after Jacobsen has stopped observing the fiddler crab, a Spanish-Chinese boy has captured the fiddler crab. The crab, battling for survival against the waves, may never have seen the approaching boy. When Jacobsen returns to the scene, the boy has the crab on a balcony; the crustacean now has "three broken legs / but he ran with the rest of them over the edge / and died on the point of the drop down / twenty feet." The crab's life and struggle for survival were framed by his birth and his death, a twenty-foot fall. Here again the observation of the crab's complex struggle—the constant fiddling, gliding, and dithering—is reduced to a simple, frank existence: birth and death. Everything that passed between was just surviving, just life.

The Commonality of God

The two themes of time and life as survival come to an apex with a simple understanding of life as that which occurs between birth and death. The time between these two events is a painful struggle to stay alive. In "Fiddler Crab," Jacobsen observes that she and the crab share this plight. She writes, "So it is simple: he can be hurt / and then he can die." Just like the crab, Jacobsen could be hurt and, just like the crab, someday she will lose her struggle for survival and die. This is a difficult conclusion to reach, because Jacobsen and the fiddler crab look so dissimilar and live so differently. A human and a fiddler crab: What could they possibly have in common? Strangely enough, the answer, for Jacobsen, is of immense proportions. She concludes in her poem "Fiddler Crab" that "it was easy to miss / on the sand how I should know him and he me / and what subject matter we have in common. / It is our god." Laying all characteristics aside that separate and distinguish Jacobsen from the fiddler crab—and all humans from all fiddler crabs or any one creature from another—there is beneath these differences a struggle for survival. This struggle is life, and this life is given by a creator to the creatures. For Jacobsen, that creator is God. Hence, if creatures struggle for a common survival that defines their lives, then that life must also come from a common god. Therefore, Jacobsen would argue, all creatures have in common the god that gives them life.


Narrative Poetry

Narrative poetry is generally a nondramatic style of poetry in which the author tells a story. In "Fiddler Crab," Jacobsen tells a story about the life of a fiddler crab on a beach. The construction of the narrative is simple. Jacobsen witnesses the crab's activities and motion on the beach, battling the surf. She describes the beauty of the water, the rocks, and the frothing waves. Jacobsen brings herself into the narrative, imitating the crab with her hand and casting a shadow across the beach. In addition, Jacobsen introduces another character—the Spanish-Chinese boy—who is ultimately responsible for the crab's demise. Although Jacobsen uses the poem to deliver a message about life and God, "Fiddler Crab" is still an example of narrative poetry.


In "Fiddler Crab," the crab takes on human qualities, showing the similarities between Jacobsen and the crab. The crab's "body glides" and "dithers" like that of a dancer or a boxer. The creature observes and reacts to life, and Jacobsen refers to the crab in a friendly way, calling the creature "he" and "him." The crab's human qualities lead Jacobsen to believe that they share a common struggle, which in turn suggests to Jacobsen that they share a common god. Without some catalyst to draw a connection between the crab and Jacobsen, there would be no way the poet could effectively deliver the message of a common, life-giving god.

The Effects of Irregular Rhythm

Although the poem is narrative in style and tells the story of the fiddler crab, it also irregularly changes rhythm, instilling different emotions in the reader. The first three stanzas are frantic and frenetic as the crab eludes the waves, whereas the last three are slow and introspective. Even though the crab's struggle for survival wanes and eventually ends in the last three stanzas, the rhythm of the poem does not reflect sadness. Instead it presents the crab's death rather in a matter-of-fact way, bolstering Jacobsen's analysis of life rather than focusing on the dramatic, painful demise of the crab.

Historical Context

Spirituality and Catholicism

Jacobsen's "Fiddler Crab" is set in an indeterminate time and a nonspecific place. The poem has no direct relationship to any moment in history for two reasons. First, a primary theme of the poem is time and its levels. To adequately address the questions of the levels of time (for example, eternity), framing life between birth and death, a sense of proportion, and so forth, the poem cannot be fixed to or affected by any one relative moment. In order for Jacobsen's observations and commentary on time to maintain a sense of timelessness, she must question the nature of time outside any reference to history and chronology. Although "Fiddler Crab" was written sometime between 1950 and 1965, no particular date is given or referenced in the poem.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: The U.S. presidency term is restricted to eight years.

    Today: The U.S. presidency is still restricted to eight years, but there are discussions about removing the requirement that an individual must be born a U.S. citizen in order to run for president.

  • 1950s: It is reported that lung cancer is linked directly to smoking. However, tobacco companies continue to produce and sell cigarettes without any repercussions.

    Today: Millions of people still smoke cigarettes, even though the habit has been linked directly to many diseases. However, tobacco companies are increasingly held responsible for producing and selling dangerous products to consumers.

  • 1950s: James Watson and Francis Crick decipher the structure of DNA, opening an entirely new field of biological study: genetics.

    Today: DNA is at the forefront of scientific exploration into genetic disease, stem-cell research, and cloning. Religious and scientific communities are at odds with one another as the struggle between God and science continues.

  • 1950s: Racial segregation in American schools is declared unconstitutional.

    Today: Although racial segregation is still unconstitutional, the American education system continues to suffer under the division of wealth, with students from wealthy neighborhoods receiving a better education than students from poor neighborhoods.

Second, Jacobsen avoids any reference to a particular time or place because the poem is also a personal exploration of faith. Jacobsen is a self-proclaimed devout Catholic, and her personal spiritual journey is long and introspective. Her body of work clearly outlines how she feels about human life as a struggle for survival. Religion, or faith, is present in much of her writings, and she works from simple facts. These simple facts are free of the convulsions of history, free of varied perspectives of particular moments. For example, in "Fiddler Crab" she concludes, even through rigorous analysis of time and life, that for all living creatures life is a struggle for survival. From this very simple fact, Jacobsen assumes, in the context of her faith, that life is given by God—not just human life, but all life. This solves the problem of multiple gods, because there is no need for a Crab God and a Human God if life is defined the same for all creatures. There is a difficulty with this model, in that it does not introduce an ethic. Yet an ethic is unnecessary at this basic level. Ethics are formed by human and social interests. Hence, this type of spirituality cannot be seen through a political, social, or historical lens. Not only is it a religious analysis of life, it is also an individualistic analysis of life.

Jacobsen is inexplicably tied to the physical world because she believes that the spirit is encased in physical bodies, whether it is a human or a fiddler crab. However, her exploration of the world and her pursuit of God and personal spirituality must exist wholly outside the time-bound constraints of historical, political, and social ideologies. Otherwise, the mysteries of faith and religion become a point of reference for viewing these ideologies rather than the goal of the exploration.

Critical Overview

Given that Jacobsen is considered a contemporary poet, there has been a surprisingly substantial amount of criticism written about her work. On the other hand, it might be fair to say that very little has been written about her body of work that spans eight decades. Regardless, Nancy Sullivan's praise in the Hollins Critic summarizes Jacobsen's greatness, stating, "The energy and quality of Josephine Jacobsen's work in poetry, fiction, and criticism, as well as her public service on behalf of poetry, are remarkable." Jacobsen is easily one of the twentieth-century's greatest poets, writers, lecturers, and critics. Her work is highly spiritual, yet not preachy or overtly in support of a religious doctrine. Although she was a devout Catholic, her poems explore her individual pursuit of spirituality, her personal interpretations of the word of God, and her never-ending search for answers to the mysteries of life and faith.

The collection that contains "Fiddler Crab" may be Jacobsen's greatest achievement. This work, In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems, spans sixty years of Jacobsen's poetic productivity. The chronological organization of her work unfolds Jacobsen's deeply personal journey of spiritual exploration, personal growth, physical aging, and deepening understanding. Elizabeth Spires writes in the New Criterion:

To read In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems is akin to watching some frightening or wondrous natural process, say a tree or flower blooming, captured in time-lapse photography—from the first stirrings of a germinal impulse to the rapid movement into individuality, maturity, and inevitable denouement. It's a disturbingly compressed tale of birth, change, growth, and oblivion.

Spires's summarization of In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems is also a clear summarization of Jacobsen's life, her work, and her pursuit of life's mysteries. Though she gained great acclaim and recognition, Jacobsen's greatest contribution may be her effect on individual lives. Her writing was so deeply personal that it seemed to open the door for other critics, poets, writers, and lecturers to embark on their own explorations. Although Jacobsen should rightly be remembered for her awards, honors, achievements, and work, the world should not forget her paramount desire to solve life's greatest mysteries.


Anthony Martinelli

Martinelli is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. In this essay, he examines how Jacobsen uses the poetic narrative to tell a story about the life of a fiddler crab and then from the story makes the claim that all life comes from one god.

The poem "Fiddler Crab" appears in Jacobsen's expansive collection In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems, published in 1995. The work is a short narrative poem telling the story of a fiddler crab's life and death. It is nondramatic, but this does not detract from its complexity. "Fiddler Crab" is an excellent example of how narrative poetry can, in fact, deliver a complex message. Beyond this, "Fiddler Crab" can be better understood as a benchmark example of Jacobsen's entire body of work. Throughout her eight-decade-long career, Jacobsen delivered nothing short of profound, rich, spiritual work, and "Fiddler Crab" is no exception. In this poem, Jacobsen tells the story of a fiddler crab: the crab's struggle for survival and ultimately his demise. Beneath the surface of the narrative, the poem questions and defines existence, compares the lives of all creatures, and uses the story of the fiddler crab to deduce that all life is created and given by one god.

What Do I Read Next?

  • What Goes without Saying: Collected Stories by Josephine Jacobsen (2000) comprises thirty short stories, all previously published. These stories take the reader to exotic lands and are of the highest literary merit.
  • The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose (1997) features two lectures delivered at the Library of Congress during Jacobsen's term as Consultant in Poetry.
  • Adios, Mr. Moxley: Thirteen Stories (1986) is a collection of short stories that explores the highs and lows of love and life.
  • Spinach Days (2003), by Robert Phillips, is a short collection of poetry. Phillips's work is inspired by Jacobsen, and this book presents poems in his various, innovative styles and poetic forms, including haiku, long narratives, short lyrics, and free verse.

In the opening stanza, Jacobsen begins to construct her narrative poem. The crab is observed as "he veers fast, glides, stops, / dithers, paws." The creature is simply moving about, almost going through a routine. There is almost no discussion of the fiddler crab's crablike features, that is, no remarks about the crab's claws, shell, chitinous burrs, and so forth. Jacobsen avoids this description with intent. She intends to draw parallels between the fiddler crab's existence and her own. The most important aspect of the first stanza is what it does not do; namely, it does not demand a distinct separation between fiddler crabs and humans.

In the second stanza, Jacobsen describes the crab's setting. Her rich, lyrical images paint a vivid picture of water that is "five shades of blue" and a rocky beach covered with "scarab shapes and tiny white and black whorls." She also comments on the waves, remarking that the "lacy wink lapses, behind it the black lustre / lapses and dulls." The waves are these lacy winks, and the reference to lapsing is not arbitrary. From a narrative poetic standpoint, this stanza describes the poem's setting, but Jacobsen, with her ever-complex intentions, is making a greater comment about time. The waves are winks because they represent moments in time. Jacobsen's verb choice—"lapses"—is connected to the passage of time. Each wave that crashes to the shore is a wink, an instant in time. Collectively, these instants make up history, and this is time lapsing, or gliding along. All the waves that have crashed against the shore represent all the history of the world, while all those that have yet to break represent the unknown future. The individual wink that occurs is nothing more than the fleeting moment that marks existence—life—between what has passed and what has yet to become.

Jacobsen's comment on time is integral to the third stanza, where she brings together the crab and its interaction with the waves. In this stanza, Jacobsen herself enters the narrative poem as a character—the observer. This, too, is not unintentional. From a narrative poetic standpoint, this stanza describes the crab dodging, attempting to "skirt the white curve" by "flatten[ing] on the black shine." The fiddler crab is trying in desperation to avoid the rushing waves, and when he is caught by the frothing waters, he holds on to the shiny black rocks for dear life. At one point the crab even has to escape into a "trembling hole" as he fights for survival against the surf. Again Jacobsen is making a greater comment about the crab's battle against time. For Jacobsen, life is defined by the struggle for survival. All the physical, living moments that occur between the crab's birth and death are nothing more than a collective struggle against time. Just as the crab strains against the constant, ever-breaking waves, so does the crab struggle against each wink of time, not knowing which one will be the last contribution to the lapse of time that constructs his individual history.

In the next stanza, Jacobsen makes her personal connection to the crab more obvious, bringing it to the forefront by mimicking his movements. She writes, "I imitated him with my five fingers, but not well." Here, Jacobsen points out that she and the crab are physically different creatures and that she is, in fact, poor at being a crab. She watches the crab come out of a hole in the sand, witnessing again his "tippity panicky glide to the wave's wink." This moment—this wink in time—is shared by the fiddler crab and Jacobsen. They have shared a moment together in their individual struggles for survival. She further binds herself to the creature in the last two lines of the stanza, writing, "Each entirely alone on this beach; but who / is the god of the crabs?" The question at the end of the stanza is difficult to answer. Through their shared wink in time, Jacobsen realizes that both her life and the crab's are defined by a singular common element: the struggle for survival. Although the wink in time they shared—the breaking wave—did not threaten Jacobsen's existence, it was still a moment in common. The struggle for survival differs subjectively from creature to creature and, for that matter, from individual to individual. However, through this moment shared with the crab, Jacobsen suddenly understands that all creatures—not just all humans—define their existence through their struggles for survival, creating a sticky problem in terms of the existence of divine beings.

Jacobsen believes in one god as presented by the Catholic Church. She accepts, as a presupposition, that this singular god has given life to hu-mankind. From this perspective, Jacobsen struggles to define the life that has been bestowed upon her by God. The spiritual journey to define existence is rich throughout her work, and "Fiddler Crab" is certainly no exception; still, what results in this stanza clearly creates a predicament. God has given life to Jacobsen. Jacobsen's spiritual exploration of her life has led her to the conclusion that life is defined by the struggle for survival. Surviving the winks, the moments, through the passage of time defines Jacobsen's existence. In "Fiddler Crab," Jacobsen supports this claim in a poetic narrative about the fiddler crab. However, the poem's narrative defines the fiddler crab's life in a fashion identical to her own life, as a fight for survival: given Jacobsen's belief that God gave her life, she asks, with respect to this companion creature, "who / is the god of the crabs?" Jacobsen knows that something must have given the crab life and that that something must be a god. Thus, the answer to this sticky question alludes to the existence of more than one god, that is, Jacobsen's Catholic God and the "god of the crabs."

In the fifth stanza, Jacobsen returns to her narrative, almost leaving the predicament of the fourth stanza and the question of multiple gods. In these lines, Jacobsen tidies up the fiddler crab's existence with his death. She writes

The Spanish-Chinese boy brought him to show.
 His stilted eyes popped over three broken legs
 but he ran with the rest of them over the edge
 and died on the point of the drop down
 twenty feet.

In a straightforward manner, Jacobsen describes the end of the crab's struggle for survival and, with it, the end of his life. This stanza is intentionally linked to the physicality of the crab, which is an important concept for Jacobsen. In an interview with Evelyn Prettyman in New Letters, Jacobsen states, "I believe in the explicable tangle of body and spirit; the spirit is encased in the physical. If you're going to know God you've got to know him in physical terms." Although this stanza is not overly dramatic, it does comment directly on the crab's physical body, remarking on his "broken legs" and "stilted eyes." The death of the crab is the end of him in physical terms, leaving only the exploration of his spirit and, thus, his connection to God.

With the death of the crab comes Jacobsen's revelation about God. It is as if with the death of the crab's physical body the question of his spirit becomes easily understood. Jacobsen writes, "So it is simple: he can be hurt / and then he can die." Like a human being, the crab's life is defined by the struggle for survival, the power to withstand the pain of life until the end. More important, in this stanza Jacobsen highlights the connectivity of herself with the crab and all living things, but she overlooks something in the predicament she reached in the fourth stanza. It is true that the crab and Jacobsen both define their lives by their struggle for survival, and it is also true that they are different both as species—a crustacean and a human—and as separate individuals—Jacobsen and fiddler crab. However, Jacobsen failed in the fourth stanza in her understanding of the definition of life. Jacobsen and the crab are not tied together by their common definition of life as a struggle for survival. The struggle for survival is life, and it is what ties all of existence together. God did not give a different life to Jacobsen, to the fiddler crab, and to this or that individual; God created all of life. All that is alive is from God and of God; the individual understanding of this life, that is, the crab's individual struggle against the surf or a human's individual struggle against illness, is subjective. Jacobsen concedes this point in her interview with Prettyman, stating, "We're even united with the whole of the animal kingdom by the fact that they can suffer, and fear and be hurt."

In the last lines of "Fiddler Crab," Jacobsen writes

. . . In all his motions
 and marine manoeuvres it was easy to miss
 on the sand how I should know him and he me
 and what subject matter we have in common.
 It is our god.

With this, the subjective differences and similarities that Jacobsen observes between herself and the crab in the first five stanzas are reduced to that which defines their physical existences and their individual, physical struggles for survival. Although the moments of survival collectively define their individual histories, it is what lies beneath that is the true definition of life. That life is created by and bestowed upon all living things by a single, solitary god.

Source: Anthony Martinelli, Critical Essay on "Fiddler Crab," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Elizabeth Spires

In the following review, Spires discusses the major themes of Jacobsen's poetry as captured in In the Crevice of Time.

Art is long and life is short. Or is it the other way around? On the evidence of In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems, a 258-page volume that spans sixty years of poetic productivity, both art and life have been long and rewarding for Josephine Jacobsen.

The collected poems of a greatly gifted poet may not offer the suspense of a well-plotted novel, but there is still a certain drama in seeing the arc of a life's work fitted between the covers of one book. To read In the Crevice of Time is akin to watching some frightening or wondrous natural process, say a tree or flower blooming, captured in time-lapse photography—from the first stirrings of a germinal impulse to the rapid movement into individuality, maturity, and inevitable denouement. It's a disturbingly compressed tale of birth, change, growth, and oblivion. So it is with Josephine Jacobsen, who, at eighty-seven, has probably been writing longer than any other American poet living today, and who continues to write poems of extraordinary force and passion. Like the aging, prescient figure in "Hourglass," a recent poem, "She perfectly understands the calendar / and the sun's passage. But she grips the leash / and leans on the air that is hers and here."

Unlike many of her poetic contemporaries, Jacobsen has not pursued a particularly "literary" life. She was born in 1908, part of a generation that included Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, and Roethke. Her formal education ended with her graduation from high school; it had been decided early on by her mother (Jacobsen's father had died when she was five) that she would not go to college. In the spirit of the time, she married early and had a child. Her first four books, Let Each Man Remember (1940), For the Unlost (1946), The Human Climate (1953), and The Animal Inside (1966), published by smaller presses outside the circle of New York, did not establish her as a major poet of her generation, although by all rights they should have. She did not teach, nor was she deeply involved with the literary world until she was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1971, when she was sixty-three. For the most part, her writing was done "on the side," in brief intense spurts during isolated months at Yaddo and MacDowell, and during winter stays in the Caribbean, a locale to which she has always felt attracted because of its "wonderful sense of strangeness . . . which was totally other." With the publication of The Shade-Seller, in 1974, and The Chinese Insomniacs, in 1981, Jacobsen became better known, although even today she is still a "poet's poet." Despite receiving various awards and honors in the past decade, she has often been overlooked, especially when major anthologies have been compiled.

Having said all that, and now having In the Crevice of Time in hand, does it matter? Of the 169 poems included here, several dozen are perfect and irreplaceable, far more than the precious half a dozen Randall Jarrell spoke of in his famous remark about poets spending their lives standing out in fields waiting for lightning to strike. A necessarily incomplete list of some of her best work would include, I think, "The Three Children," "My Uncle a Child," "Instances of Communication," "Poems for My Cousin," "The Starfish," "The Enemy of the Herds, the Lion," "The Birds," "Colloquy," "Daughter to Archeologist," "In the Crevice of Time," "The Mexican Peacock," "Treaty," "The Chanterelles," "The Shade-Seller," "Pondicherry Blues," "Notes toward Time," "The Sisters," "The Chosen," "Winter's Tale," "The Woods," "The Limbo Dancer," "Tears," "First Woman," "Reading on the Beach," and "Hourglass." In the Crevice of Time is a selection of only about two thirds of the approximately 250 poems included in her eight books, and any reader familiar with all of Jacob-sen's work might easily add another dozen to the two dozen or so just mentioned.

Throughout her career, she has persistently chosen to write poems of an unnervingly pure lyric intensity. (About her early years she has written, "I had an unidentified craving for the lyrical.") She is a formal poet with the ability, when she wants to and the poem demands it, to be "free." She has, un-fashionably, always been clear in her refusal to use personal, intimate experience in a direct or explicit way in her poems. What one observes in Jacob-sen's poetry is experience worked into the very fabric of the poem, in its tone and stance, rather than experience overtly disclosed. In a memoir she explained, "If there is little trace in this account of . . . things which are darker, of pain and loss, it is never because these things were nonexistent, but because they are in the very texture of writing where they belong" (italics mine).

A Josephine Jacobsen poem will not come alive for the reader until this subtle texture is both intellectually processed and viscerally felt, the way meaning in spoken conversation is understood as much through a subtle tone of voice, a shift in inflection, as by simple denotation. Readers desirous of an explicit topical poem (which many readers seem to be these days) will go away from Jacobsen dissatisfied because her concerns are not so easily categorized. She is part traveler ("Born travelers must and will have terra incognita"), part archeologist ("We breathe through our future. / Remember me is the message"), and part seer ("I know all about what is / happening in this city at just / this moment; every last grain of dark I conceive").

In the Crevice of Time is arranged chronologically, beginning in 1935 and continuing up to 1994. Initially, Jacobsen moves through a period of literary influence, trying out various modes and styles, both romantic and modern. About her early models and influences, she said once, "If I have cause for gratitude, let it be to Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling; to Dante Gabriel Rossetti; to Keats, Yeats, and Donne." Here is Yeats in "Fergus and the Druid":

I see my life go drifting like a river
 From change to change; I have been many things—
 A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
 Upon a sword, a fir tree on a hill,
 An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
 A king sitting upon a chair of gold. . . .

And here is the young Jacobsen in "Winter Castle":

I am many-minded, diverse-shaped:
 I am the horses, hay-warmed in the stalls,
 The snow-snagged spruces, and the starving hare
 Coursing the slopes of snow.

Other early poems, such as "For Any Member of the Security Police" or "'It's a Cold Night,' Said Coney to Coney," show Jacobsen assimilating the influence of Auden. Much of her early work is characterized by a tight reining in of the subject matter, by an ironic or distanced treatment, and by the imposition of formal constraints, where lines are carefully counted out and fitted into set forms.

At around the age of forty, when many poets privately wonder, "What now?," Jacobsen stepped out from the shadow of influence and the confinement of closed forms to begin writing the poems that are most hers. Working outside of any poetic circle, she said of the process, "I was forced . . . to develop a sense of my own intention." And her intention, from almost the beginning, seemed to be to write a poetry in which "the experience, wherever found, is the experience of being taken out of oneself, simultaneous with an inner penetration to unity. In that respect, the aesthetic experience is similar to the religious experience, and vice versa."

The overriding thematic preoccupation of her poetry, from first to last, is impermanence and loss. Chief among the many questions that her poems seek to answer are these three: What is the difference between the animal and the human? How do humans know and communicate with one another? And, how shall we be reconciled to the fact of death? In "Notes toward Time," Jacobsen reflects that "the schizoid heart tells / what is alive, by its dying." An early poem, "Spring, Says the Child," connects the child's (and poet's?) acquisition of language to the onset of consciousness, with its fateful recognition that all things die:

There are words too ancient to be said by the lips of a child—
 Too old, too old for a child's soft reckoning—
 Ancient, terrible words, to a race unreconciled:
 Death, spring....
The composite heart of man knows their awful age—
 They are frightening words to hear on a child's quick tongue.
 They overshadow, with their centuries' heritage, The tenderly young.
Death, says the child, spring, says the child, and heaven....
 This is flesh against stone, warm hope against salt sea—
 This is all things soft, young, ignorant; this is even Mortality.

Here, as in so much of her poetry, Jacobsen presents human existence as having a disturbing double aspect: a precarious, desperate balancing of life and death forces, one light, one dark, one hopeful, one unassailably grim. The formal arrangement of the poem, with the abruptly cut-off fourth line of each stanza, heavily emphasizes the words death, spring, tenderly young, and mortality, the words almost a précis of the poem's argument. But even as Jacobsen acknowledges the fact of death, she also perceives nature's recurring cycles and promise, both cruel and hopeful. In the texture of the poem, one intuits a certain timeless knowledge: that the law of life is barbaric.

The concerns articulated in "Spring, Says the Child" have occupied and preoccupied Jacobsen for a lifetime. If we are "a race unreconciled," then where can we look for consolation? In "Instances of Communication," one of Jacobsen's most masterly poems, the poet traveler posits one answer:

Almost nothing concerns me but communication.
 How strange: Up the Orinoco, once, far
 up the Orinoco after jungle miles, great flower-heads
 looping the treecrests, log-crocodiles, crocodilelogs, bob-haired
 Indians naked in praus: a small, hot, town and in an upper dining-room
plashed at by a fountain, cooled by fans, guardian
 of a menu the size of a baby,
 speaking six languages, with seven capital cities
 behind his eyes, a headwaiter,
 a man, who said without hope, "And when does your ship sail?" And no one
 said to him, "What are you doing here?"
In the hall of the inn at Mont Serrat I came out of my room and
 "Stand back, stand back!" cried the criada in her softest Spanish, "the bride
 the bride is coming!" out of her room, down the hall, down to the steps
 on her way to the church, to the groom. She was pale, and dark; she clouded
 the carpet with the mist of her train, she moved by me but turned and bent and caught
 my fingerbones seeing me like fate, watching the three of her, the old, tall, childhood girl,
 the darkly seen half-a-thing, and the white bride
 lost on the point of love, and "Buenas,
 o buenas tardes!"
she called into my ear, she
 crushed my fingers and laughed with panic
 into my widened eyes and went proudly on whispering
 over the hall runner.
I drove five madwomen down a roaring redhot
 turnpike in a July
 noon; the one behind me had a fur ragged coat
 gathered about her in that furnace;
 she reached in the horrid insides of a purse and offered me a chocolate, liquid
 and appalling. "Look! Look! A bird!" I cried and flung it over the side
 and munched my empty jaws as she turned back,
 and cried: "How good!"
 And while the others hummed and cursed, and watched simply, suddenly she put
 her lips—behind me—to my ear and soft as liquid chocolate came purling
 the obscene abuse. "Hush, hush, Laura, hush,"
 said the nurse; "the nice lady likes you!" Laura did not believe so, and went on softly, slowly, lovingly,
 with O such a misery of hate.

Underlying the deliberately difficult, rapid syntax of the first three stanzas is a sense of isolation and panic, madness and terror, in which the characters speak different languages, both literally and metaphorically. Throughout the poem, the narrator feels the press of other people's identities. She sees but cannot rescue the hopeless waiter from his remote exile; their conversation is limited by the empty language of social convention and by cultural boundaries. Likewise, she sees the Spanish bride in a mystical, transfigured state, but the girl's "o buenas tardes!" fails to adequately express the gravity of her wedding day, when her girlhood identity and innocence will be forfeited. And in the third stanza the narrator and nurse must suffer the obscenities of the madwoman Laura. All three vignettes contain disturbing examples of failed speech, and yet, playing against this, each also contains an example of the narrator's uncanny ability to fathom the interior of the people she observes. It is a Keatsian moment where the poet becomes a nerve-like receptor to the lives around her and finds herself in helpless, knowing communion with them.

In the final stanza, Jacobsen shifts from these painful, disturbing scenes of human communication to a sacramental communion:

In frosty Philadelphia the freighter lay and loaded in the Sunday ice.
 The great cranes swung, the huge nets grabbed and everything echoed from cold:
 docks, warehouses, freightrails, ships' prows;
 everything clicked and echoed;
 but it was possible to go down the long cold docks
 over the strange dark street under
 the dim sky into a cold great warehouse Sunday
 still, up still cold stairs, along
 a dark dim cold thin hall through a brown door into a small square room with lit
 peaky candles and kneeling take—cool, slick, thin,
 little larger than a quarter—
 God's blood and body charged with its speech.

Stanzas three and four are striking in their juxta-positions: we are led from the hot hell of the turn-pike to the cold heaven of the "great warehouse," from the image of the obscene chocolate offered by Laura, an unwanted communion, to the Eucharistic host, a divine communion. In receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, the speaker is in the grip of something powerfully symbolic, literally in communion with a wordless, mystical language, the antithesis of the obscene speech in stanza three. It is an epiphanal moment that takes us back to Jacobsen's remark that "the aesthetic experience is similar to the religious experience, and vice versa." For Jacobsen, faith and imagination are closely connected, not exclusive of each other, the physical world a place of potential symbol and metaphor, a place where divine speech—the speech of poetry and prayer—can exist. In "Instances of Communication," the world of imaginative experience and the world of religious experience brilliantly intersect and momentarily become one.

If religious faith is one form of consolation in a time-bound world, one path to epiphany, even more so for Jacobsen is art. In "The Interrupted," a poem about art and antiquity, she writes, "These [statues] escape from their maker's limit to rejoice us with hope." In the title poem of In the Crevice of Time, she describes the moment when a "hunter-priest" made the first cave painting, "his art an act of faith, his grave / an act of art: for all, / for all, a celebration and a burial." It is a recurring theme in Jacobsen's work. Art, for Jacobsen, connects us to the timeless and eternal, as in "The Enemy of the Herds, the Lion," a poem about a memento mori, a "decorated boxlid, ca. 2500 b.c., which was found in the grave of the Lady Shub-ad at Ur." The poet describes the image on the box as "a lion-sheep without division," predator and victim "tranced and ardent in the act of taking / utter enough to be love." She asks, "What / word did her box-beasts mean?" and considers various answers:

Possibilities; the chic symbols
 of the day, on a fashionable jewel-toy,
 the owner modishly ignorant; or, corrupt,
 an added pulse to lust.
 mocking, or wise, remembrance
 of innocent murder innocent death,
 the coupled ambiguous desire,
 at dinner, at dressing, at music.
 best, and why not? of her meeting
 all quiet terror, surmounted by joy,
 to go to her grave with her; a pure
 mastery older than Ur.

Again, Jacobsen presents the twinned, inseparable aspects of human existence, its joy and terror, in her juxtaposition of life and death, death and art. (The phrase comes up again in "The Clock" where she writes, "In joy and terror / I move in time where / nothing points to error.") Hunter and hunted, death and life, are, in the poem's phrase, "without division." This idea of "terror, surmounted by joy," infuses much of Jacobsen's work and is absolutely central to understanding what she is about as a poet.

Although there are many Josephine Jacobsen poems that delight and entertain, she is, in her greatest poems, capable of staring death in the eye and drawing its wrenching lineaments down to the last wrinkle. This two-mindedness—in which she is both in the moment and yet also self-consciously aware of time's rapid passage—is perfectly embodied in "The Chanterelles," a poem about mushroom-gatherers. Even as they cook their find "in cream and Neufchâtel / and onions, to devour it together close to the first flames," they are also aware that more deadly, poisonous mushrooms, "some single, breastbone white; others the color of dust, the color of rain," grow among the chanterelles in the dark fairy-tale wood. It is the experience of a happy picnicker in a sunlit field watching, out of the corner of her eye, a dark cloud approaching.

The recent poems that make up the last section of In the Crevice of Time are some of Jacob-sen's very best. There is an open, direct, colloquial quality to them, and a remarkable sense of self-disclosure. Guises and disguises (Dickinson's "slant truth") are abandoned, poetic pretense dropped. In "Calling Collect," she implores someone on the other end of a telephone line, "For the love / / of God let me hear your voice locate me. / Over distance, long, it is saying my name. / I speak to you," an address as much, perhaps, to her readers as to a personal beloved. Running through these poems is an intense desire to connect. One has only to scan the titles to see that time and death are very much on Jacobsen's mind: "Next Summer," "Survivor's Ballad," "The Chosen," "The Night Watchman," "Winter's Tale," "We Pray Most Earnestly," "You Can Take It with You," "The Blue-Eyed Exterminator," "The Thing about Crows," "The Shrivers," "Loss of Sounds," "Hourglass."

In "First Woman," the narrator observes a bleak winter landscape that mirrors her own ravaged spirit. The poem is a desperate interrogation of self, the poet reaching far back into the deep past to address the skeletal remains of "Lucy" (so named by archeologists), the earliest known woman:

Do animals expect spring?
 Ground hard as rancor,
 wind colder than malice.
 Do they think that will change?
Sky no color and low;
 grass is no color, and trees
 jerk in the bitter gust.
 In this air nothing flies.
Do they believe it will change,
 grass be soft and lustrous,
 rigid earth crack
 from the push of petals,
sky retreat into blue,
 the red wide rose breathe
 summer, and the butterfly
 err on sweet air?
First woman, Lucy, or another,
 did you know it all waited
 somewhere to come back?
 On the first stripped, iron day
did you believe that?
 On this merciless morning
 I wake, first woman,
 with what belief?

The vocabulary of "First Woman" speaks for the naked condition of the spirit and the violent elements that would destroy it: rancor, malice, bitter, stripped, iron, merciless. There is an immense projection of emotion outward onto the landscape, the poem nothing less than a harrowing self-portrait, a poem of brutal "inner weather." One of the most remarkable aspects of "First Woman" is the way Jacobsen pushes the possibilities of the lyric, so often centered in one moment, to encompass past, present, and future: the deep past of Lucy's original knowledge, the bitter present, and the hoped-for future with spring's "push of petals" and summer's "red wide rose." It is a poem poised on the brink of an abyss, a "crevice of time," but through a supreme act of will, the poet resists giving in to despair. In "First Woman" Jacobsen has gone full circle, from the first intimations of knowledge in her early poem "Spring, Says the Child" to the hardest and harshest recognitions imaginable, earned only through age and experience. It is one of the most successful contemporary lyrics I can think of.

Isn't it for this kind of truth-telling, this way of seeing that penetrates to the very core and marrow, that we read poetry? It seems no accident that a deliberately sibylline countenance floats on the cover on In the Crevice of Time, bringing to mind the Sibyl's proverbial words to Aeneas: "Yield not to disasters, but press onward the more bravely." In a long life of writing, Josephine Jacobsen has. Source: Elizabeth Spires, "Joy and Terror: The Poems of Josephine Jacobsen," in New Criterion, Vol. 14, No. 3, November 1995, pp. 28–33.

Josephine Jacobsen and Evelyn Prettyman

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Source: Josephine Jacobsen and Evelyn Prettyman, "The Mystery of Faith: An Interview with Josephine Jacobsen," in New Letters, Summer 1987, pp. 41–56.

Nancy Sullivan

In the following essay, Sullivan discusses a range of Jacobsen's poetry to "suggest the scope and radiance of [her] achievement as well as its power."

The energy and quality of Josephine Jacobsen's work in poetry, fiction, and criticism, as well as her public service on behalf of poetry, are remarkable. She has dedicated years of her long life and enduring talent both to her own writing and to the cause of literature. Josephine Jacobsen has always demanded a high standard of excellence of herself and has rejoiced in discovering the skill and insights of other writers. She is a "woman of letters" in the purest and best sense; and the range of her work, particularly in poetry, is singular and wonderful. I trust that my discussion of a few representative works will suggest the scope and radiance of Josephine Jacobsen's achievement as well as its power.

To speak of power in connection with poetry is to conjure up images of the poetry Mafia, cultural politics, and various other questionable arenas which by definition seem antithetical to the genre. Josephine Jacobsen's concerns are certainly not with poetry hustling; they are with the intrinsic nature of the poem itself. In a poem called "The Poem Itself" she clarifies the issue:

From the ripe silence it exploded silently.
 When the bright debris subsided
 it was there.
Invisible, inaudible; only
 the inky shapes betrayed it.
 Betrayed, is the word.
Thence it moved into squalor,
 a royal virgin in a brothel,
 improbably whole.
It had its followers, pimps, even
 its lovers. The man responsible
 died, eventually.
When the dust of his brain left the bones
 the bond snapped. It escaped to itself.
 It no longer answered.
On the shelf, by the clock's tick, in the black
 stacks of midnight: it is. A moon
 to all its tides.

Here the pure poem escapes to speak of and for itself. It is. Pure energy. In a lecture called "The Instant of Knowing" delivered in Washington in 1973 while Josephine Jacobsen was Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, she commented that one must not "veer from the core of the job. . . . As I see it, the cause, the purpose, and the end of the position of Consultant in Poetry is poetry itself, as poetry is the poet's own job.... The center of everything is the poem. Nothing is important in comparison to that. Anything which in some valid way is not directly connected with that current of energy which is the poem is dispensable."

A poem need not have power as its overt subject in order to concern itself with that issue. The "current of energy which is the poem" conspires with and enhances whatever subject it ignites. This is certainly true in "The Poem Itself," and as additional examples I might have cited any number of poems from The Animal Inside such as "Deaf-Mutes at the Ballgame" or "Yellow" or even earlier poems which reflect her theory of poetry as energy and, therefore, as a vehicle of power. In an essay called "From Anne to Marianne: Some Women in American Poetry," delivered as a lecture at the Library of Congress on May 1, 1972, Jacobsen writes about women in terms of power and powerlessness, "Power is related to energy, and poetry is energy." This theory is a constant motif throughout Josephine Jacobsen's poetic canon.

In one of the "new" poems in The Shade-Seller, New and Selected Poems called "Gentle Reader" Jacobsen's subject is her response to reading a genuine poet, "A poet, dangerous and steep," as opposed to a versifier or "a hot-shot ethic-monger." Jacobsen recognizes the real thing in an instant, in a blast of light and comprehension. The short poem ends with this stanza:

O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;
 this poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow
 until I exist in its jester's sorrow,
 until my juices feed a savage sight
 that runs along the lines, bright
 as beasts' eyes. The rubble splays to dust:
 city, book, bed, leaving my ear's lust
 saying like Molly, yes, yes, yes O yes.

Josephine Jacobsen's theory of poetry as energy, as power, is here realized and made incarnate in the brightness of "the beasts' eyes" and "the ear's lust." The poet knows that she has encountered the real thing. As Jacobsen remarks in her lecture, "The Instant of Knowing," "Poetry is energy, and it is poetic energy which is the source of that instant of knowing that the poet tries to name. The test for the true poetic energy which rouses Barth's sleeping dragon is, it seems to me, the only universal test which can be applied to poetry." In this poem, both the articulation of the theory in such radiant language and the theory itself miraculously fuse, and that, says Josephine Jacobsen, is what poetry is all about.

In an intricate poem called "Language as an Escape from the Discrete" from Jacobsen's 1981 collection, The Chinese Insomniacs, an arc is constructed from the insect world where two wasps mate (or fight) to a cat who puts "its furred illiterate / paw on my page" and who, like the poet, drinks milk and will inevitably experience one breath which will be final. The fourth stanza introduces a human element in the person of a questioning child, and the arc is completed in stanza five by the adult who

in love, says hush; says, whatever
 word can serve, it is not here.
 All the terrible silences listen always; and hear
 between breaths a gulf we know is evil.
 It is the silence that built the tower of Babel.

The darker side of the poet's ongoing search for the radiant center is thus energized by this exploration of the frustrating side of the medium of language. The poet gropes and grapples and finally turns the inarticulate into an advantage: all silence is not golden. Babel with all of its ensuing conflicts was inevitable and necessary.

In a more recent poem, "The Motion," not yet collected into a volume of poems, Josephine Jacobsen examines the hush of the moment of change. What is transition? When and how does the geranium's bud burst into full flower? Time and the seasons move forward yet "turn over / without stir or whisper." The energy crouches unseen, a flicker. Note the beautiful closure of "The Motion."

If I could see it happen, I could
 know when all tides tip; low luck
 shifts; and when loss is ready. When
 you are saying goodbye to someone you think
 you'll see next week. And don't ever.

These lines, in their wisdom and scope, are beyond comment as the mysterious, stoppered aspects of natural forces beckon Jacobsen into truth's fathomless mysteries. How unlike the "power of Nothingness" as interpreted by Genet and examined by Jacobsen in her book on Ionesco and Genet.

Josephine Jacobsen often writes poems one must characterize as "narrative" in that they are animated by some progression or action that culminates in a resolution. The characters in these narrative poems are people we come to care very much about such as Mr. Mahoney in "Mr. Mahoney" or Father O'Hare and Mrs. Pondicherry in "Pondicherry Blues" or Mrs. Mobey in "Spread of Mrs. Mobey's Lawn," all poems in Josephine Jacobsen's most recent collection The Chinese Insomniacs. Another poem in this volume called "The Fiction Writer" reveals not only her commitment to the storyteller's art but her ability to evoke its mysteries:

Last night in a dream
 or vision or barrier broken
 strange people came to me.
 I recognized them.
Some I had made, I thought.
 Still they were strange—fuller, somehow—
 with distinct objects ahead of their steps.
Others who looked at me invitingly,
 but threateningly too,
 I had not seen.
 Familiar though they were.
In his arms, in hers,
 each carried a secret.
 All were self-lit, like fish
 from deepest water.
Nothing told me then
 if I were bench or dock.
 Only cousin, cousin, cousin
 said my blood, circling.

Her observations on reading submissions for NEA poetry fellowships in 1981 inspired her candid remarks in an essay, "Like Hunger and Thirst," published in TriQuarterly in 1984. Attempting to catch the flavor and to categorize the manuscripts of the 873 entrants in that competition, she reports that the most frequently recurring subject matter dealt with the father-son relationship and with sexual experiences. The former subject, she reports, was discussed somewhat nostalgically and elegiacally, while the latter was generally treated with disappointment, "bewildered resentment," or "a sort of acid regret." Despite some good poems, the submissions were marred, she says, by a great deal of mediocrity, triviality, and plain badness. It is a distasteful business to define these traits: they have a tendency toward contagion. Jacobsen observes, "as we swim desperately in the tide of mediocrity, like Alice in her pool of tears, I can think of no lifeline so hardy as hostility to the trivial." In her view, triviality does not have to do with subject matter, form, language, or technical tricks; it is quite simply an absence, "an awful little void where the life of the seed should pulse."

In this essay she recites the difficulties facing the contemporary poet—outworn language, the disappearance of shared convictions and assumptions, the paucity of readers amid the abundance of writers. The very business surrounding poetry stands in the way of the poem: "the heavy processes of submission, of publication, of reviewers; the supercargo of grants and residencies, prizes and honors. Sometimes it is difficult, in the turmoil of appendages, to keep steadily in mind that solitary, dangerous encounter with the thing itself—that lonely meeting that can never be predicted or totally defined, and from which all authentic poetry, whether most minor or most major, arises."

As a striking example of authentic poetry, she cites two lines which she once discovered in a 19th century New Hampshire cemetery, carved on a leaning gravestone: "It is a fearful thing to love / what death can touch." For years she searched, unsuccesfully, for the source of that quotation. Indeed, neither this idea nor these individual words provide the key to the magic: it is the balance, "the cadence, the sequence of words, the action of the first line, the heavy fall of the last line's four monosyllables which call out the response." All the technical effects of a poem, Jacobsen believes, must fuse in its language. Dishonesty, triviality, sententiousness, tiredness are first betrayed by the words themselves. The necessity of following such advice remains paramount throughout her work, particularly in the most recent.

When a poet plays Scrabble, the game, since it involves words, becomes the chanciest game of chance and its goal not merely to score but to examine the nature, the ambiguities, and the mysteries of language. Or so it seems in the first section, "A Game of Scrabble," of Josephine Jacobsen's poem A Dream of Games published in November 1984 in Poetry.

As are many of her short stories, "A Game of Scrabble" is set on a tropical island: "Beyond the balcony the sea / flees in long quivers.... Below, slick and lovely, the frangipani / boughs, black as snakes and bare, spring / into pink at the top...." The three players contemplate the Scrabble board grasping for words that spell out secret, often unintentional messages:

The tall child makes gory, doubled.
 The smooth tiles spell
 relationships, accidents.
.... eath, ... eath, Fingering
 a d, one pauses there. A d
 would do; br would be better.

An ominous atmosphere pervades the poem, suggesting sinister events which never materialize but which hover over the game board. The poet is more aware of it than are the other two players. The poet wins the game or, rather, her words, as in a poem, win. Once again, she has chosen well and made a new order out of the chaos of vocabulary.

In "Bridge of Knaves," the second section of the poem, the game shifts from Scrabble to bridge and the poet examines the characteristics of the Jacks or Knaves of Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, and Spades. They are a mercurial quartet bent on the slippery pursuits of the game. The poet endows each with a separate background and personality. The Knave of Clubs claims "deep chairs, deep rugs, / hot andirons, snow beyond glass; exclusions;" He is "the ancient heir." The glittering Knave of Diamonds swaggers while the Knave of Hearts claims variety as his lure. The last Knave, the Spade, is viewed suspiciously by the other three:

Three Knaves know how absurd
 is the fourth's eminence.
 Spade must be the dealer's
 irony; yokel, upraised:
the root's, the earthworm's visitor,
 the flower's clownish uncle.
 But in cardboard, one-eyed and natty,
 in the end, he says, depend on me.

The regal cast in this section of A Dream of Games assumes surreal and animated postures as do the figures in dreams. The poet, the "dealer", has won all the "tricks" in this game of guises.

In section III, "A Dream of Games," Jacobsen explains that "The game is dreamed for the rules." The game here is ostensibly a ballgame, but this final section is an amalgam of the various games and gamesters that concern the poet throughout A Dream of Games. The poet, posing both as shill and participant, wins the game by default. The poem, a game of catch, is the ultimate power arena where contests for fabulous stakes are won or lost.

The game is dreamed for the rules.
 Monte Alban's old rule dreamed
 that ball-court from which the loser died.
 Chaos, soft idiot, is close
as breath. But the games appear,
 celestial in order; contracts we make
 with light: the winner humbled,
 the loser connected with his law.

In a recent interview (I interviewed Josephine Jacobsen on tape on October 15, 1984. The full text of this interview will appear in a forthcoming issue of 13th Moon, a journal edited by Marilyn Hacker.) she told me that she thought of herself as a poet who writes short stories, never as a short story writer who writes poetry. She considers herself by profession a poet. She did not, as a matter of fact, begin to publish fiction regularly until she was in her late fifties, although she had written a great deal of fiction at a much earlier age. At that time, her agent couldn't place the stories in viable magazines, and she believed "short stories just aren't for me," although she never stopped wanting to write them. When Jacobsen became more established as a poet, she decided that it didn't really matter whether her stories got published or not; she wanted to write more of them, and she did. Almost all of these "second-wave" stories have been published and several of them have been reprinted in O'Henry anthologies honoring the best stories published in periodicals of a given year.

Josephine Jacobsen's short stories are classic examples of the genre. Something happens in them; people change; development occurs. This is also true in her numerous narrative poems. Jacobsen dislikes stories with tidy endings, the climactic sentence. Her stories are open-ended as she indicated in our interview:

I'm desperately conscious when I'm writing a story that the human beings of whom I'm writing have had a long history before they've come into my story and, except in the case of death, they are going to go on having a history after the story.... And in all the stories the reader is left with a choice; in other words, in story after story after story the denouement completes that particular part of the plot but it leaves wide open the subsequent action of the characters.... In stories I don't care for, I frequently get the feeling that these people have never existed until they stepped on the page and that they are going to be dropped like paper figures the minute it is over. And life not being like that, I think one of the fascinations of fiction is that if you have created real people, you have created a possible future for them and that this is something that the story ought to be powerful enough to make you speculate about.

Most of Josephine Jacobsen's best stories are concerned with her belief that human beings when given power all too often misuse that power. The themes of these stories, and of many of her poems, are political in the cosmic rather than the literal sense. Sometimes the accoutrements of the powers struggling involve a conflict between blacks and whites in her native Baltimore or on tropical islands where blacks are in the majority rather than in the minority, at least in numbers; sometimes the power struggle revolves around the oppression of the young by the old or vice-versa. Among her newer stories, "Sunday Morning," "The Squirrels of Summer," and "Protection," for example, explore these conflicts. While the settings and situations in the individual stories vary considerably, the theme is a constant.

In one of Josephine Jacobsen's best known stories, "A Walk with Raschid," one finds a classic Jacobsen situation. The setting is exotic: Fez, Morocco. The happiness of the recently married heroine, Tracy Gantry, is threatened by the invisible presence of Oliver, son of her husband James Gantry's previous marriage. This lurking presence is mirrored in the character Raschid, a small ten-year-old Arab boy, a child as dark as Gantry's own son is fair and who is the same age as the absent Oliver Gantry. The tight plot which encircles the story revolves around a walk with Raschid as guide, which never takes place, but in the end provides the impetus for speculation as to the future of all of the characters, and especially about the lasting power of James Gantry's second marriage to Tracy.

James Gantry experiences an instant rapport with Raschid when he arranges for the boy to take him and a somewhat reluctant Tracy on a guided tour of the town on their last day in Fez, instead of their going to visit a film director who is an acquaintance of a restless, aimless couple they've met at the hotel. Tracy is less enthusiastic about the arrangement not merely because she wishes to meet the director but because, as we surmise later, she recognizes James's paternal attraction to the boy Raschid, who reminds him, in a perverse way, of Oliver, who is her chief rival for James's love. Secretly, Tracy pays off Raschid before he can take them anywhere. Reacting to this demeaning bribe, he kicks her. The story is beautifully crafted; at its conclusion we are forced to speculate about the future of the Gantry marriage.

A darker strain becomes more apparent in many of Jacobsen's stories published since the volume A Walk with Raschid. In a recent long story with an island setting, which has a peculiar similarity to "A Walk with Raschid," and which is called "The Mango Community," (recently published in The Ontario Review and soon to be reprinted in the O'Henry anthology of Best Stories of 1984), an unmarried American couple, Jane Megan, a painter, and Henry Sewell, a writer, along with Dan Megan, Jane's fifteen-year old son by a previous marriage, are discovered by the reader living on the island of Ste. Cecile where they've come for an indeterminate stay. The surface conflict is both political and racial on this island where one's color determines one's destiny. The Vice-Consul urges the Americans to leave before the growing political tension erupts into a malignant violence. Their next-door neighbors, the Montroses, are native blacks; the Montroses' son, Alexis, and Dan play cricket together and come to symbolize much that is latent in the rest of the story and in the culture. Jane, as mother, is obsessed with the notion that Dan might be shot, arrested, or otherwise hurt. As it turns out, it is Alexis who is "hurt" in a most awful manner: paralyzed for life as the result of the brutality of the local police and thus never again able to aspire to his dream of becoming a professional cricket player, a profession that would buy his way out of the poverty that is the lot of his people on this their native island.

Alexis's accident is partially the result of happenstance and of Henry Sewell's pseudo-liberal political leanings, which tempted young Dan to join him on a political march. Without his parents' knowledge or permission, Alexis also joins them. Jane discovers the tragic result of the march when she returns from what had been a very rejuvenating painting session.

The Montroses respond to the assault on their son with spartan rage. Mr. Montrose snarls at Jane, "You go to hell.... Evil, evil, evil. All of you. Go home—if you have one." Jane and Dan do go home. Henry Sewell remains on the island to try to "fix things." The double doors close on the story leaving the essential questions unanswered but exposed and discussed. The questions posed are more interesting than any possible answers might be. Will Jane and Henry meet again, marry, make a good life together with Dan? Have the circumstances over which they had little control made or broken them? The reader is left to speculate on the futures of these three characters as well as the nationals left on Ste. Cecile. All of these fictional people have a life beyond the events in the story, as is true in all of Jacobsen's best stories.

A close examination of the wide spectrum of Josephine Jacobsen's short stories reveals a great variety of characters and situations as well as a diversity of settings, but all of them enlighten the reader through a similar integrity of vision. Her carefully plotted, meticulously written stories reveal a conscious awareness of the dark vein running through human endeavors. There are no "happy endings" in the traditional sense, only pockets of knowledge which will guide their readers towards a more sensitive and informed view of their own responses to them. Jacobsen's stories are harbingers of quiet, sometimes dark, but always reliable wisdom.

In her early life, Josephine Jacobsen confesses to having been stage struck. As she explained in her interview with me: "I had one of those beautiful, clear convictions one has when one is 15 or 16 or 17 that it was quite possible to meld two of the most demanding professions in the world, and I seriously thought I could be a full-time poet and a full-time actress." At 15 she began 5 years of acting with the Vagabonds, at the Baltimore Civic Theatre, an exciting and talented group with an ambitious schedule. She has certainly used her early theatrical training well. She is a frequent lecturer and a particularly intelligent public reader of her own work. Reflecting on her brief but intense theatrical career, she said, "I think that having a certain amount of poise on a stage and the necessity of communicating, the necessity of being heard, and above all of creating a rapport between the audience and the poet is, after all, the basic thing an actor has to do: to bring something alive. It's something the audience and the actor do together and something that the audience and the poet do together."

Although she has not written a play, she collaborated with William R. Mueller (Professor of English at Goucher College) on two volumes of innovative dramatic criticism: The Testament of Samuel Beckett (Hill and Wang, 1964) and Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence (Hill and Wang, 1968). At the time of their publication, both books were in the vanguard in dealing with their subjects; both remain fresh and incisive. They are intended for the intelligent general reader, and they focus on the dramatists thematically, while discussing their plays individually.

The uniqueness of the critics' study of Beck-ett lies in their initial classification of Beckett as a poet. The choice of this vantage point is fortuitous; it allows them to move rapidly past technique directly to language and intention. They view Beck-ett's canon as the "internal autobiography" of one man, a twentieth century Everyman with a "mirthless howl," a laugh that is not a laugh. They examine the procession of brooding central characters (Celia, Vladimir, Estragon, Hamm, Clov, Winnie, Krapp, Molloy) the combination of tragic clowns and rebellious poets, caught in a "communion of suffering." Each of these characters is, as the critics indicate, "like one of those pen strokes of a Picasso drawing in which a single pure line defines the expression of an entire human personality." Beyond the individual clowns, the riddling and repetitious language, the dictated soliloquies, the general atmosphere of "intimidating simplicity" of Beck-ett's landscape, they point out how cohesive his work finally is, how faithful he remains to his individual vision. The stark economy of his message is sharply outlined in their humane critical study.

The two critics construct their second book with Beckett as the foundational figure and attempt to define the common themes of Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet: alienation, suffering humanity, God's silence, the difficulty of communicating in language and emotions. They suggest as a perfect trilogy, as portraying the dilemma of modern man, one work by each playwright: Waiting for Godot, The Killer, and The Balcony. But the harmony and cohesion displayed in the Beckett study is not really possible here. Ionesco's plays are more difficult to classify than Beckett's; they seem to contain more diffuse action, a proliferation of characters and places in constant motion, and, of course, a continuing obsession with an inexplicably lost paradise. The two critics are most successful when discussing the paradox of Ionesco's language: his struggles to renew and refresh language despite his contradictory belief that it is nearly hopelessly worn out. "It is like cleaning a room or nourishing a body or breathing: it can never be finished until the room or the life is closed."

Genet's elaborate images and action are even more dazzling and diffuse. Wisely, the critics concentrate on his plays, using the fiction and autobiography as a sort of "seed ground." They return to the classification of the playwright as poet and to Genet's identification of poetry with power. "Power, the fascination of power, its adoration, the means whereby it can be procured and the manner in which it can be enjoyed, maintained, and protected, this is Genet's central concern." They discuss Genet's interest in ritual and the sacred and the prevalence of certain "creators of poetry" in his work—dancers, blacks, boxers, prostitutes and soldiers. They note the progression in his plays of the varieties of power, culminating in The Screens in a quintessential and indestructible power: absolute "ugliness, beauty's absence, that ugliness which is in reality the hole at the center of all," the power of Nothingness.

Throughout her fortunately long and energetic literary career, Josephine Jacobsen's work has shown persistent and humane power. The clarity of her vision and the competence of her technique, even the selection of central themes, have been consistent in her prose and poetry. These elements are evident in her earliest work. The title poem of her first collection Let Each Man Remember (Kaleido-graph Press, 1940) describes various reactions to stress. The cogent metaphor is selected from one recurring trauma of daily living—how people get up to face a new day. It is a situation which is not less terrifying for its commonality.

It is indisputable that some turn solemn or savage,
 While others have found it serves them best to be glib,
 When they inwardly lean and listen, listen for courage,
 That bitter and curious thing beneath the rib.

In the more than 45 years since writing those lines, Jacobsen has listened well to courage, "That bitter and curious thing beneath the rib."

Source: Nancy Sullivan, "Power as Virtue: The Achievement of Josephine Jacobsen," in Hollins Critic, Vol. 22, No. 2, April 1985, pp. 1—10.


Jacobsen, Josephine, "Fiddler Crab," in In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, pp. 37–38.

Prettyman, Evelyn, "The Mystery of Faith: An Interview with Josephine Jacobsen," in New Letters, Vol. 53, No. 4, Summer 1987, pp. 47, 49, 50.

Spires, Elizabeth, "Joy & Terror: The Poems of Josephine Jacobsen," in New Criterion, Vol. 14, No. 3, November 1995, p. 28.

Sullivan, Nancy, "Power as Virtue: The Achievement of Josephine Jacobsen," in Hollins Critic, Vol. 22, No. 2, April 1985, p. 1.

Further Reading

Beck, Edward L., God Underneath: Spiritual Memoirs of a Catholic Priest, Image, 2002.

This collection of short stories takes an innovative approach to religion and spirituality. Father Beck's vignettes are touching and hilarious but deeply esoteric. The book brings together preaching and storytelling to deliver a profound, yet entertaining message.

Bokenkotter, Thomas, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, 2003.

This critically acclaimed history covers the most important events that have shaped Catholicism over the past two thousand years. It is a useful reference book and one of the best-selling religious histories of the past two decades.

Craig, David, and McCann, Janet, eds., Place of Passage: Contemporary Catholic Poetry, Story Line Press, 2000.

This is a diverse and intriguing collection of modern poems on Catholic themes arranged around the Christian calendar. Selections include writings from Thomas Merton, Robert Fitzgerald, and Annie Dillard.

Martin, James, ed., Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions, Loyal Press, 2004.

In this book, Martin has collected essays focusing on devotion and the contemporary believer. The book includes works by some of today's most prominent Catholic writers, including Ron Hansen, Emilie Griffin, Joan Chittister, and Eric Stoltz, as they celebrate traditional Catholic devotions through vignettes and essays.