Jen Karetnick
The Burning Where Breath Used to Be
David Robert Books

Reviewer: Ann Wehrman

In her 2020 collection, The Burning Where Breath Used to Be, Jen Karetnick escorts the reader through inner and outer worlds, personal and public. Writing with deep perception, irony, wit, compassion, and righteous fire, Karetnick spins a web of brilliant, multi-hued language that explodes like June’s blood-red roses or September’s gold and vermillion leaves. The reader marvels at her virtuosity as well as the diversity of topics, including Ashkenazi Judaism, teaching, and leadership, each poem well-layered, draped in Karetnick’s rich writing and living messages.

Beginning the collection, “23andMe Says My Body Is a Sanctuary City” rings true from its first stanza, the narrative eliciting archetypal memories and shared associations. Karetnick writes of traditions, characteristics, and experiences of Ashkenazi Jews with words and imagery as satisfying as a rich meat stew, as honey bread with raisins and nuts. The author interlaces dry, even mordant, wit and humor throughout; in this first poem, she writes:

for those more able to detect the presence of asparagus, processed in
          urine or semen after steaming under kosher salt on a Friday
          night when the sun covers its head

The speaker claims her kin, and as the stanzas progress, tone and message move from clever observances to righteous rage. The poem begins:

for the Basque and the Romani
for Ötzi the Iceman, chipped out of the Alps
for 1,600,000 Ashkenazi Jews, one finger on the founding hand,
          descendants from the 6,000,000, strained out like tea leaves

And toward its end:

who have better prospects at being made into widows on refugee
          boats that have been returned to the wholesale of war, from
          the cyclic pitch of death flights, in the in-flux policies in
          detention rooms at airports, where green cards change to red

Red cards refer to the red cards of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in the US, on which are printed immigrants’ legal rights (Immigrant Legal Resource Center, 2016, https://www.ilrc.org/red-cards).

“Sonnets for Code Red” tersely compares the year 1975, when elementary school students drilled for nuclear attacks (some readers may remember), to 2015’s active shooter drills in the classroom. The prose poem, “A Teacher Prepares for a (Bombogenesis) Live School Shooter” continues this theme, begging hard questions that our society still avoids:

How safe is the safe room?  It may or may not withstand the main charge, the fuse, the trigger mechanism. Oh, that trigger. This is the math we will do in the safe room: How many times has it been pulled? Do the ends justify the meat? And how often have #NoResponseAgain politicians, who cannot see beyond their own aims, who view life through a scope, shovel off the red carpet of truth to find room in the safe?

One may automatically think of the leader of a pack as male, but consider, what if that leadership were shared in a mated pair? What would the ultimate female leader look like, how would she act, what would her essence be? Why would she be hunted down and killed? Would it be for a different justification than that used for killing her mate? Questions like these seem relevant to human society as well, as human gender roles blur and gender inequality continues to dissolve, however painstakingly slowly. In “Shooting the Alpha Female,” Karetnick’s alpha seems human at first, but is gradually revealed to be a wolf, the female in the pair leading a pack. That connection (animal/human) exposes possibilities related to human society, raising questions such as what constitutes leadership, vision, integrity, and moral strength. The poem also poses the questions: who hunts the leader and why? Karetnick writes:

the rare white wolf of Yellowstone,
posing on the ridge while her mate

tends the litter. This is what makes her
an easy mark. We have believed too long

she is as invincible as oxygen; her refuge
could never be revoked. He is sure

to stay downwind, doesn’t leave behind
his weapons: a gun, the usual cruel words,

a whistle as shrill as her voice. They will
offer a reward. But his job here is done.

One blast. The rest come tumbling after. How
well he’s been taught to take out the leader.

Eat or be eaten, the message is known from infancy in the wild. Yet, the gun, whistle, and blast attack the beautiful white wolf without natural purpose or reason, an unjustifiable travesty.

In today’s world, hundreds of thousands have suffered and died from COVID-19, with lungs and breathing usually affected or failing. Although these poems were written before the pandemic (it is likely that this specific collection was accepted for publication and edited before the pandemic began), the title, The Burning Where Breath Used to Be, seems prescient and tragically relevant.  In choosing this title, these words, before anyone had heard of COVID-19, what did Karetnick intend? “Surge: An Epigenesis” was previously published in 2018—again, long before the emergence of COVID-19. The poem, however, is eerily au courant, wrapped thickly in almost impenetrable imagery, an enigma:

I have a terrific burning
          where my breath
used to be.  A blister of coal,

I heave with energy on lockdown,
          ready to consume
at any moment this veracious fuel

. . .

I have known this rising
          for millennia. Awake,
asleep, I yellow with it, turn sun.

It is likely that the poet intuits humanity’s need for rebirth, the need to cast off chains that have “locked us down” and to awaken, reborn. Thus, perhaps the unintentional contemporaneity of her words reflects a prophetic channeling of sorts, as often happens with poets. Whether that is true or only an interpretive conceit, Karetnick’s astute collection nevertheless engages, startles, and inspires the reader.