Kerosene is a debut book of poetry by an already accomplished poet and educator, Jamella Hagen. Hagen is a University instructor at Yukon College, completed her MFA at UBC, and served as the Executive Editor of PRISM International. As a debut collection goes, Kerosene has a maturity and measured quality that is quite cleverly alluded to by the title: these poems, in less skilled hands, would tremble with volatility, like lamp oil cut, in an effort to economize, with benzene.
A work in three acts, Kerosene charts the arc of a life—seemingly autobiographically: youth in the bucolic BC interior; exodus and travelling the world (ironically, to agrarian, or rural, communities); and finally establishing the fine balance of adulthood between past and present, individual and family, country and city, self and other—for the moment, at least.
Part I of Kerosene is the most vivid and picturesque. Hagen draws on memory and family lore to create snapshots of the past, as in “Dragging the Cabin,” in which she writes, “It would be easier, they thought,/to move the six-sided cabin they’d built/than to start again with a pile.” This poem begs the question: Is it simply a quaint memory of salt-of-the-earth type relatives, or is this an ethos built into the DNA of Hagen’s work? Because this sentiment persists through the book: the resourcefulness, the summoning of inner strength, the tough calls, and the fall out.
Part II deals largely with Hagen’s time in Brazil and South Korea—fragments of memory that are less complete perhaps, but as a result, even more evocative. “Leaving the North” is possibly the finest poem in this section, harkening back to an earlier poem in Part I, simply called “Fall.” Hagen tells us, “I was known for falling/from horses,” only for us to remember the earlier, eerier tale that, “It wasn’t all accident. I adjusted the helmet/and jumped.”
Part III attempts to reconcile a sheltered youth with an impulsive adolescent who navigates the world, as in “Questions of Home” in which Hagen asserts, “Anywhere can feel like home/if you lie there long enough/staring at the ceiling.” It’s a seemingly youthful, rebellious notion, but then it’s also what the original frontier spirit is built on—endurance as a divine form of grace. We recognize that no matter how far Hagen goes around the world, she is rooted in the west. We suspect that she discovers this, as well.
Hagen has a mastery of her craft that exhibits deceptive ease. Her work fits within well within the tradition of Alice Munro or Miriam Toews, who cultivate intimate portraits of families and communities and then proceed to claw away the layers of acrylic. Like those authors, and in contrast to many historical or contemporary poets, you cannot see the strings or mirrors placed within Hagen’s work; if there are devices, they are well-hidden. There is form without rhyme; lyric without elevated language; arc without induced crisis. Perhaps what makes Hagen’s work so accessible, and why I want to compare her to short story writers or novelists over other poets, is her stress on place and narrative and on the confluence of the two. You get a sense that self only develops in relation to, or as an extension of, landscape—that terrain sculpts character, that climate cultivates a kind of psychic patina on us.
For some, I imagine, the poems may be too prose-oriented, or too readily reconciled. But Hagen’s work is all about a kind of nuance and subtlety that requires a high level of perceptibility and attunement to shifts and thresholds: an eye that recognizes the many angles of sunlight, or the infinite textures of snow. Like a spreading fire, Kerosene made my mind race, led me “through a valley toward a gate”—and I can’t say which way it was I went: toward what was familiar, or toward a new place I just need to look at long enough to love.