MADCAP by Jessie Janeshek (Stalking Horse Press, October 2019)
reviewed by Joseph P. O’Brien
Jessie Janeshek’s MADCAP (Stalking Horse Press, 2019) is a poetry collection with the soul of a surreal neo-noir film directed by David Lynch and starring Mae West as the hard-boiled detective. It’s a mystery wrapped in faux fur, wandering through a jagged and smoky past like it’s a hall of mercury-glass mirrors. It seeks clues to answer haunting existential questions about the eternal entanglement of beauty and violence. To track down leads, it conducts seances with the spirits of Old Hollywood starlets, their voices phasing in & out like staticky radio waves on West Virginia mountain roads, their sentences cut up & reassembled by the ghost of William S. Burroughs.
Naturally, MADCAP arrives nowhere near anything resembling an obvious conclusion. I’ve read it over five times now, and it almost becomes more enigmatic with each turn of the page. Yet I’m certain I’ll eagerly read it many more times. Its inscrutability is not a frustrating liability, but an endlessly alluring asset.
This is largely because Janeshek’s voice exudes bewitching seduction on various levels. In more primal moments, she crackles with audaciously goth sexuality (“run me by the mortuary / then fuck me on the traintracks in a cape”). In more pensive moods, she lounges around in satin bathrobes perfumed with sardonic malaise (“I wake up every day a corpse flower at my most terrible”). Somewhere in between, she wrestles with an insatiable desire for glamour, and an unflagging dread of the danger that glamour so often attracts (“I communicate sadness red lips and tips / since shit will happen in a bloodstained negligee”).
That voice is pitch-perfect pretty much everywhere in MADCAP, though one exemplary poem would be “Household / Old Gold.” I especially marvel at how in its third stanza, Janeshek paints a memory that begins fondly in vanity and revels in dreamy sensuality before sucker-punching us with nightmarish mob-mentality:
The one time I looked good smooth smoke on the throat my midriff exposed leopard sex a magic fur like a roadside attraction I stumbled drunk through screwball city and all the girls said drag her drag her through the blood-muck underneath the roadster rip her face off with the roadster
Janeshek’s inimitable rhythm is also key to the potency of her work. She arranges ragged punk-edged phrases and vivid pop-art imagery into forms that feel erratic yet precise. Reading “Bombshell Planchette,” I imagine Dead Kennedys lyrics sung by Peggy Lee and remixed by Aphex Twin:
Hills burning, I search for phrases the challenge of childhood generations a raised swimming pool in the center of western hegemony in the hollowed-out rot of Palm Springs that suppresses my synapses yet makes me cum
MADCAP is divided into two sections, “The Close-Up” and “The Long Shot,” inspired by the famous quote attributed to Buster Keaton that says, “Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.” After all my readings, however, the poems in “The Close-Up” feel, as a whole, just as gloriously painful & grotesquely hilarious as those in “The Long Shot.” Far as I can tell, there’s little to differentiate each half from the other, and individually, the poems feel less like unique pieces and more like variations on a grand theme.
I don’t mean this as a criticism. I still can’t remember a lot of the names or many of the distinguishing characteristics of, say, individual paintings by Salvador Dali, but I’d still hang every one of them on the walls of my house if I could. (And if I could do such a thing, I might never leave my house.) So it goes with the poems in MADCAP: you could essentially read one chosen at random and grok what the book’s all about. But you may likely want to read more, and if you do keep reading more, they won’t necessarily feel repetitive. In fact, their power over you may only intensify exponentially.
Of course, maybe my own faulty perception prevents me from noticing MADCAP’s intended contrasts. Then again, in a world that’s constantly zooming maniacally between tragic close-ups and comedic long shots, maybe that’s MADCAP’s point after all.
Joseph P. O’Brien founded FLAPPERHOUSE magazine, and served as managing editor during its five-year run. Joseph wrote the micro-chapbook BADMOTORFLAPPER, and their writing has been published in Yes Poetry, Entropy, matchbook, and Rag Queen Periodical, among other places. By day, Joseph works in a public library and runs a Musical Storytime program for children. Website: JosephPOBrien.com ; Twitter & Instagram: @JosephPOB