Josephine Jacobsen

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Josephine Jacobsen 1908–

(Born Josephine Winder Boylan) Canadian-born American poet, short story writer, and critic.

The following entry provides an overview of Jacobsen's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.

Josephine Jacobsen's poetry is noted for its spare, elegant language and broad range of form and subject matter. She explores such concerns as communication, pain, identity, isolation, and the relationship between the physical and the spiritual in verse often imbued with animal and nature imagery. Although Jacobsen often examines dark and mysterious elements of life, she is regarded as a poet of affirmation who articulates her themes with intelligence and conviction. Critics note that her poetry derives its power from her skillful use of metaphor, irony, and understatement blended with wit and compassion. Jacobsen is also highly regarded for her short fiction, particularly such stories as "A Walk with Raschid," "The Mango Community," and "Nel Bagno."

Biographical Information

Jacobsen was born in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. Her father died when she was five, and after his death she lived with her mother and brother, both of whom were emotionally unstable. Jacobsen has described her mother as "passionate and intense, either elated or depressed." Her brother was a talented writer and artist but eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Initially educated by private tutors, Jacobsen later attended Roland Park Country School, graduating in 1926. Although she did not attend college because at the time women were not expected to get a higher education, Jacobsen has stated that "I have wished passionately that I had been to college or that I had had the opportunity to decide if I wanted to go." She married Eric Jacobsen in 1932 and had one son. Jacobsen gained some critical attention with the publication of her first poetry collection, Let Each Man Remember (1940), but she remained outside the literary world until 1971, when she was named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. She remained in this position until 1973, when she became honorary consultant in American letters, an appointment she held until 1979. Jacobsen has also served as a member of the literature panel for the National Endowment for the Arts from 1970 to 1983 and has belonged to such organizations as the Poetry Society of America and PEN. In addition to winning many literary awards, including an Acad-emy of American Poets fellowship, the Lenore Marshall Poetry prize, and numerous O'Henry prizes for her short stories, Jacobsen was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.

Major Works

Jacobsen's first poetry collection, Let Each Man Remember, features fifteen love sonnets, collected under the title "Winter Castle," and a section of metaphysical lyric poems. The Human Climate (1953) contains intensely personal verse in which Jacobsen conveys through direct, personal, and incisive language her views on the injustices and hypocrisies of the world. Jacobsen's next poetry collection, The Animal Inside (1966), includes seventy poems dating back to 1953 and displays her range of subject and form. This work contains poems about animals, including a sestina on hummingbirds, as well as meditative pieces probing love and death. In The Shade-Seller (1974), Jacobsen further reveals her interest in primitive natural forces and explores such themes as history, travel, and religion. The Chinese Insomniacs (1981) examines the role of language in building and maintaining human relationships and community. In many of these poems, Jacobsen employs a detached tone and minimalist structure to emphasize her themes. The Sisters (1987) spans fifty years and comprises representative poems from her previous verse collections as well as new works. In the...

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Crevice of Time (1995), which includes poems dating from the 1930s to 1994, won the Shelley Memorial Award, the William Carlos Williams award, and was a National Book Award finalist. Jacobsen's short fiction is collected in A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (1978), Adios, Mr. Moxley (1986), On the Island (1989), and What Goes without Saying (1996). Set in such diverse locales as Baltimore, the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Morocco, Jacobsen's short stories often end unresolved, leaving the reader to speculate about the future of her characters. In "The Mango Community," for example, an unmarried American couple are caught up in revolutionary politics on the island of Ste. Cecile. "Nel Bagno" is the story of writer Jane Glessner, who, minutes before she is to depart for Italy, finds herself stuck in her bathroom with nothing more than an Italian phrase book. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, Jacobsen has also collaborated with William R. Mueller on two critical studies, The Testament of Samuel Beckett (1964) and Ionesco and Genet (1968).

Critical Reception

Although Jacobsen's work is not widely read or anthologized, critical reaction to her writings has been positive and enthusiastic. Reviewers have consistently praised her poetry for being disciplined, intelligent, unpretentious, and personal and have compared her verse to that of such noted poets as Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, and W. H. Auden. Her short stories have also been positively received, with critics lauding her skillful characterization, evocative prose, and use of simple plots to address such complex themes as loss, age and youth, and the conflict between the sexes. Although Jacobsen treats universal themes, critics note that her work is unique and individualistic and is therefore not easily categorized. Jacobsen herself has noted: "I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery." While praising Jacobsen's commitment and dedication to her craft, critics have suggested that her idiosyncratic approach to writing has contributed to her lack of prominence. In recent years, however, Jacobsen's works have attracted more attention, and critics speculate she will gain the reputation she deserves. Marilyn Hacker, for example, has stated that "the work of Josephine Jacobsen is one of the best-kept secrets of contemporary American literature," and Joe Osterhaus, in a review of In the Crevice of Time, has declared that "Jacobsen aspires to the rarest of statures—the poet whose originality and power force us to rethink the accepted categories of poetic excellence."

Principal Works

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Let Each Man Remember (poetry) 1940For the Unlost (poetry) 1946The Human Climate: New Poems (poetry) 1953The Testament of Samuel Beckett [with William R. Mueller] (criticism) 1964The Animal Inside (poetry) 1966Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence [with Mueller] (criticism) 1968From Anne to Marianne: Some American Women Poets [editor] (poetry) 1972The Instant of Knowing (lecture) 1974The Shade-Seller: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1974One Poet's Poetry (lecture) 1975A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (short stories) 1978The Chinese Insomniacs: New Poems (poetry) 1981Adios, Mr. Moxley: Thirteen Stories (short stories) 1986The Sisters: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1987On the Island: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1989Distances (poetry) 1991Collected Poems: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1995In the Crevice of Time (poetry) 1995What Goes without Saying: Collected Short Stories (short stories) 1996

Robert B. Shaw (review date 4 April 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Sisters: New and Selected Poems, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. LLII, No. 1, April 4, 1988, pp. 40-41.

[In the following positive review, Shaw critic states that "what is striking and admirable in Jacobsen's work is the consistency with which she unites firmness of technique with intelligence and feeling."]

How many poets do we have who can make a moral point without pomposity? The answer is: Not many. Josephine Jacobsen is one of the few. An especially fine instance of this ability of hers comes in "An Absence of Slaves," when she describes her Greek tour guide boasting that the Parthenon was built with free labor, The poem ends:

     … she said: "The city      sent a slave      to each man's yoke,      oil press and furrow,      to free for toil the free Greek:      the free raised these!" she cried      to the blue sky and honey-      veined columns. "This is      no pyramid." And I saw      the loins and wrists      and bones and tendons of those disprized      who in absence reared the great frieze.

Together with the ethical clarity of this, the beauty of description and the precision of diction are also typical of this poet. (How perfect the word "disprized" is here.) What is striking and admirable in Jacobsen's work is the consistency with which she unites firmness of technique with intelligence and feeling. There is an attractive lack of egotism in her writing; it is distinguished instead for its empathy, its awareness of vulnerabilities we all share. She is so poised in manner, so level in tone, that the reader is recurrently startled by how closely the poems take account of peril, deprivation, and mental or moral darkness. In one of several poems set in the Caribbean ["The Night Watchman"], the speaker is awakened by the night watchman's light and muses:

     Dogged as cock or dog, his light will return.      Protection! Protection? While      the thin knives of the clock      shred minute by minute, and the sea      turns over its bones?

In a much earlier poem, "The Eyes of Children at the Brink of the Sea's Grasp," the children in an "ecstasy of panic" play in the waves:

           … down the shining     Dark slope of invitation, outward, to the prize     Of shaping danger they go—and widen their eyes     Innocent and voluptuous.

To grow up, of course, is to lose that innocence, and Jacobsen's poems are everywhere touched by the foreboding knowledge which replaces it.

Like the children braving the waves, she has been willing to take risks. She has remained open to formal innovation, and each of her volumes had among its contents poems which are fresh and surprising—not exotic, momentarily diverting "experiments," but new and individualized strategies for poetic success. (The macaronic "Phrases in Common Use," the bouncy "Pondicherry Blues," and the monosyllabic "The Monosyllable" are examples.) She has taken another risk, where reputation is concerned, in publishing considerably less than many of her contemporaries have done in the span of almost fifty years represented in this book. It contains selections from six previous volumes and a group of new poems, but remains at 132 pages unusually compact as a summing-up. In a society which prizes quantity as much as ours, Jacobsen's choice of writing only when she has had something significant to say has probably cost her some attention. In the long run, though, quality is what counts; and I venture to predict that this book will continue to be taken from the shelves to be read when many another weightier one is taken down only to be dusted.

Michael Heller (review date 12 June 1988)

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SOURCE: "Owls, Monkeys and Spiders in Space," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 93, June 12, 1988, p. 15.

[In the following excerpt, Heller praises Jacobsen's use of language in The Sisters: New and Selected Poems.]

Josephine Jacobsen's poetry has always been a matter of the cool ear over the fanciful eye. The Sisters, which gathers poems from nearly 50 years, demonstrates not only scrupulous verbal craft but a kind of auditory seriousness, a preference for depth and precision over mere charm or beauty. In "Winter Castle" (1940), she conjures up a picture of "the owl that … shall serve as nightingale." In a later poem, she writes of "the shade-seller," a man at a bull-fight who sells one a seat out of the direct glare of sun and blood. Such images hint at Ms. Jacobsen's lyricisms, which seem always adumbrated by night vision.

In her most recent poems, among the strongest she has written, the voice is even deeper and more simplified. It is as though the poet were relying on Browning's "purged Ear," which "apprehends Earth's import." For Ms. Jacobsen, such apprehension means the discovery of both death and renewal, often entwined, as in one poem about swimmers floating over a "necropolis of the fish":

     So, out of the deeps of sleep      where they cannot keep company—      chosen, at least—      from the fathoms of memory, one      by one, at morning, they rise      into themselves, into their limbs, the new      sight of the old sun on their sea.      As though they would, always, wake.

One hears in that "always" a half-fleeting stay of the music in the stanza, as if the idea that one were going to live forever had momentarily snagged on truth.

Ms. Jacobsen's theme is often regeneration—but in a minor key, a matter of limited befores and afters or of contraries arising out of the play of the real and the imagined. The witty title poem of this volume pits "A" against "B," two sides of the poet's psyche who sometimes disagree and are only reconciled by bearing common witness to the world: "amicably they watched the blood orange dip / into water, then stars, larger and brighter than elsewhere. / Before bed, A looked at herself in the mirror, using B's eyes."

The poet, who has spent a long life at her craft, is most powerful in splendid, oblique meditations on death:

     What must be said of clouds is: they are silent.      Their silence is flawless….      Death is equally silent but does not move.      I think a good thing to see before the quiet that is      motionless, would be the bright soundless motion.      This silence fills the ear like another music.      It appeases. How much time in which to be      grateful is roughly sufficient?

Sound and word are caught in endless refractions in such passages. In Ms. Jacobsen's craft, language seems as flawless as silence.

Further Reading

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Mason, David. Review of In the Crevice of Time, by Josephine Jacobsen. Hudson Review 49 (Spring 1996): 168-69.

Positive review in which Mason stales that "In the Crevice of Time is worth buying and going back to."

Osterhaus, Joe. Review of In the Crevice of Time, by Josephine Jacobsen. Boston Review (1997).

Laudatory review of In the Crevice of Time. Osterhaus also discusses Jacobsen's development as a poet.

Review of What Goes Without Saying, by Josephine Jacobsen. Publishers Weekly 243, No. 47 (November 18, 1996): 64.

Brief positive review in which the critic calls the short stories in the volume "small, highly polished gems."

Steven G. Kellman (review date 27 August 1989)

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SOURCE: "The Human Archipelago," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 94, August 27, 1989, p. 20.

[The following is a positive review of On the Island: New and Selected Stories.]

"The distinction between poetry and prose writers," wrote Shelley (in prose), "is a vulgar error." The vulgar fact is that 81-year-old Josephine Jacobsen, the former Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, is known primarily as a writer of poems. One of them, "Instances of Communication," begins with the ambiguous declaration: "Almost nothing concerns me but communication." And, at first glance, the 20 exquisite stories she has collected in On the Island seem to concern nothing, almost.

Consider "The Jungle of Lord Lion," which is set, like several other offerings, on an imaginary Caribbean island named Boudina. Fastidious Mrs. Pomeroy's happiness at the guest house called Morne Jaune is marred by the presence of Mrs. Chubb, a boorish bigot who "looked like a nasty sea monster, all blubber and malignancy." Thus Mrs. Pomeroy is stunned when it is she, not the loathsome Mrs. Chubb, who is asked to leave. That is all there is to the plot; nevertheless, Ms. Jacobsen's narrative haiku fits Mrs. Pomeroy's own description of a phrase from Yeats—"the words were as true as bone … it was life held up like a transparency to the blaze of loss."

Ms. Jacobsen's osseous truth is pared of fat; she gives us spare, unsparing tales of spiritual tropism. In "The Night the Playoffs Were Rained Out," Mr. and Mrs. Plessy are transformed after watching baseball on a motel television with the obnoxious Luther and Minna Gombrecht. In "The Wreath," a visitor betrays a patient at the Pine Mount clinic by handing the patient's fantasized shopping list to a nurse. In "Jack Frost," the nonagenarian Mrs. Travis, determined to spend another winter alone in her New Hampshire homestead, trips in her garden but manages to crawl inside the house.

James Gantry, on his honeymoon in Fez in "A Walk with Raschid," feels contempt for "those dreadful, contrived stories in which at the last moment someone is run over, his mother falls dead, he is arrested, or locked in a windowless room." That is a catalogue of endings for several of the consummately contrived stories in On the Island. In others, despite Ms. Jacobsen's apparent discomfort with the crudity of merely recounting a story, a terminally ill maid is suffocated by her employer, a Guatemalan peasant severs the index finger of a human-rights investigator, a priest inadvertently backs his car off a Vermont mountain, a man in bed during an idyllic Caribbean vacation is decapitated. But what is sensational about these stories is less the events they rehearse than their delicate designs. They demand to be reread, since Ms. Jacobsen, unlike O. Henry, resolves nothing with her surprise endings.

It is not quite a windowless room into which Jane Glessner is locked, and her claustration occurs at the outset, not the end, of "Nel Bagno." Moments before she is to depart for Italy, Mrs. Glessner, a writer, finds herself stuck in her own bathroom with little more than an Italian phrase book, her wits and her words. "Nel Bagno" is a parable of the writer's calling, a desperate effort to break out of the isolation into which each of us is locked. Whether in New England, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Acapulco, Central America, Morocco or Boudina, Ms. Jacobsen's characters, like Jane Glessner, inhabit what Wallace Stevens called an island solitude under an old chaos of the sun. Against Donne's assertion that "no man is an island," the stories in On the Island give each one of us in the human archipelago, like Odysseus before the Cyclops, the name of Noman.

Erin McGraw (review date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: "The Landscape of Story," in Georgia Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 170-76.

[In the following excerpt, McGraw positively reviews On the Island, praising Jacobsen's treatment of the themes of loss and isolation and her unsentimental characterization.]

The stories in Josephine Jacobsen's On the Island don't fall immediately into overarching categories. The collection is new and selected work published over the past twelve years, and the stories cast a wide net encompassing age and youth, the battles between men and women, and the battles we carry on to know ourselves. But Jacobsen relies on place to a striking degree for activating her stories: actions occur because people are where they are—Baltimore, Mexico, the Caribbean—and couldn't happen anywhere else. A tourist, unfamiliar with the undertow of a local beach, is swept out to sea; a man is forced to die within the confines of a world so narrow he is trapped by his own men's club; and even in "Nel Bagno," an odd and comic piece in which a woman is trapped in the bathroom of her own house, it is the confines of the room itself—the small window and smooth tiles—that hold her back, so that the physical reality of the room becomes her enemy.

Jacobsen deals most frequently with loss, and in particular with unanticipated loss. More broadly, her stories tend toward representations of isolation, and they feature the places that are unfamiliar, where we and the characters are forced to look around carefully. In "The Mango Community," a few Americans staying on a small Caribbean island must determine what to do as the native society around them swells and bristles with coming revolution. Should the visitors stay and declare solidarity? Should they return with their children to their own home, the place of safety? For Jacobsen, identity is formed by action, and the story's deepest question is this: What, finally, is our identity?

Attachment to the land or detachment from it jars these characters into awareness. Feigning ignorance of the dangerous undertows of Mexico, a young husband can lose his beautiful, gentle wife as he reaches for her wanton half sister. Well-meaning Americans can cause boys to be killed in the Caribbean or Morocco, the very wideness of their intended mercy more than the culture can absorb. Or in her own home an aging woman can bring on her own death, seeing the early frost come and knowing what such a frost means, in New Hampshire, to a woman in her nineties and alone.

Jacobsen is known primarily as a poet, and her poet's sense of structure and language are everywhere apparent here. Not only are some of her characters remarkably familiar with contemporary poetry (Father Haggerty, in "Late Fall," has published poems in Foxfire and Lillabulero, and he quotes Howard Nemerov to his weary pastor), but the language is gorgeous and embellished, filled with little gifts. Beyond the restraining wall "the Caribbean glared and glittered," and an American thinks about feeding the fish she can't see beneath its surface, imagining "the demented maze and flicker of hunger." Metaphors are a part of the terrain of this language: "the marriage split like an old rowboat"; "her hand, like the paw of a starving bear after fish, had darted down"; waves of fatigue curdle over a man.

In a certain sense the stories are also structured like poems, turning on the finest point of near-revelation. Such moments come when characters are closest to seeing themselves in a new light, one cast by strangeness or illness or age. These are moments of epiphany, but Jacobsen makes them tight and compressed—and gone before the characters realize their full import, because in these pieces life is unruly and pushes us along before we're ready. In "Late Fall," for instance, Father Consadine escapes his Nemerov-quoting curate and slips into church:

He put his hands down and sat back in the pew. For any acknowledgment of his presence, he might have been back at his desk. It was all wrong; he had lived by personal encounter, by grace or the experience of grace. That encounter, that sense of grace, had become rarer and rarer. Suppose finally it never came again? Well then, he would wait.

Who was he to be disappointed, to dictate the occasion of meeting?

And the story moves on. As readers, we must be quick on our feet.

On the Island is a rich collection and a large one (twenty stories across 250 pages), reminiscent often of V. S. Pritehett and Graham Greene in the texture of its language. Jacobsen writes with some formality but never with distance, plunging us into the centers of her characters' lives, into the hopes—and the fears—they haven't articulated even to themselves. She has maturity of craft and, more important, of vision. Her lens is wide, clear, and unsentimental; there is room for all of us to play in her stories, for all of our hopes and tragedies. She doesn't shy away from anything, and in the end her collection feels as broad and various as the world.

Dulcy Brainard (review date 24 April 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of In the Crevice of Time, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 17, April 24, 1995. p. 66.

[Below, Brainard provides a positive review of In the Crevice of Time.]

One turns to Jacobsen's poems [in In the Crevice of Time] not for flashy, egotistical juggling, but as to an old friend, for her dependable, philosophical voice, rich in technique and free from cliché. She imagines eliminating the "monosyllable love" from our language in the hope that someone "will enunciate a syllable / of force" to replace it. "What small / metaphors we set / ourselves," she laments elsewhere, and in poem after poem proves this need not be the case. Her gaze is often directed outward, sighting the estranged or deformed: clowns with highly individualized sorrows, deafmutes watching baseball. Whatever handicaps these subjects bear don't generate pity; if anyone seems deficient it will be the reader. Because her poems don't fall into easily recognizable categories—political, confessional, nature, or even formalist poetry (though she writes well in her share of forms)—Jacobsen is seldom anthologized. Yet her work has withstood the test of time better than many of her more-often-read contemporaries from the 1940s and 1950s. Her latest poems are modern and forceful.




Jacobsen, Josephine (Poetry Criticism)