Review of Jimmy and Rita: A Verse Novel by Kim Addonizio (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2012)
Genre-bending—the prose poem, flash-fiction, novels in stories, literary biography, and, more to our purpose, the novel in verse—is particularly appealing these days. Some recent book contests accept only manuscripts that challenge classification, and even readers and writers who are more comfortable in traditional genres often feel curious about what they might be missing. Like children reluctant to go to sleep on the hunch that something good will happen once they go upstairs, we wonder what possibilities are bound up in the genres we ignore.
And yet, those of us who think of ourselves as lyric poets necessarily dwell within the possibilities and richness of the lyric tradition. We like to believe we know the novel’s limits. We admire it while acknowledging it’s simply not what we do. By and large the same is true for short stories, plays, and even novellas. Still, working (and reading extensively) in another genre might lend new insights to the forms we know best.
Robert Hass and David Foster Wallace have forced many of us to encounter the strange and possibly false dichotomy of prose poems and flash fiction. These genres have always seemed to me differentiated primarily by who writes them (poets write prose poems, fiction writers write flash fiction), and this distinction of origin governs what we notice, what’s present and what’s missing. Both can be rewarding and infuriating. Reading a prose poem, we might question whether line breaks might not improve a piece, or, alternatively, what the work has gained from the rhythms of prose. A piece of flash fiction may trim away some of narrative’s fat, but then sometimes seems to fall short of delivering what we really want from a story, narrative arc or the hard-earned transformation of perspective and understanding. At its best, flash fiction makes you question why any story needs to be so long. Done badly (or even normally), prose poems can seem lazy and flash fiction clever. Still, writers work in them; the dream persists.
I was drawn to Jimmy and Rita, in part, because of these questions. Primarily, I wanted to know what one could squeeze out of a novel in verse: how much narrative complexity could be leant to the poem, how much richness and torque of language could be added to the novel.
“Novel” does not seem a word aptly applied to this book. Although it contains many compelling micro-stories within the poems, there is not enough of an overall narrative arc, nor enough transformation from beginning to end, to fulfill the expectations that word engages. It does function as an increasingly complex and interesting dual character study, with stories and secondary characters interspersed. In terms of one organizing story line, it is the love story of two drug addicts struggling with poverty, addiction, alcoholism, and confusion. The thing I appreciated most about this book is its elucidation of a particular kind of love affair. The love between Rita and Jimmy, because of who they are and the circumstances of their lives, is continually embattled: they fight with each other and others; they are in and out of jail, prostitution, and bad jobs; they disappear for stretches of time; and neither of them is even healthy enough in his or her own right to merit normal romantic expectations. Each fails the other and him or herself. Yet, everything in this story, the affirmation of the two voices, the pattern of reunions at any cost, and the general thrust of the narrative towards increasing certainty in their love, suggests the utter permanence of their relationship and its primacy in their imaginative lives if not always their actual lives.
What Addonizio compellingly explores is the paradox that a relationship that seems so doomed is indivisible and in fact immune to not only any, but all of the worst challenges that can threaten people and their relationships. The last lines of the book, in Rita’s voice, “Jimmy is looking at me and I know/ he loves me, I know/ he isn’t ever going to stop,” is not a high point creatively, but it does successfully convey the pure momentum of their connection, as if they are both immune to everything, even death, by the force of their love. This kind of relationship does exist and can be easily misinterpreted as your run-of-the-mill disaster by even intimate onlookers. In truth it is really something rare and miraculous. Not many writers could do this unusual kind of relationship the justice Addonizio does.
The book falls firmly within a twenty-first century understanding of “verse.” Addonizio’s poems are casually narrative, usually medium-lined (with a few prose poems), and sometimes formally experimental. The most experimental poem is a kind of lineless table or chart of four columns and seven rows of words, often repeated (“cigarette” appears five times). While I did not find this successful, other poems, such as the very short “My Name,” are. The book’s dialogues, as well as its shifts between prose and lyric poems, provide spontaneity and movement to the book that could not be had in prose. I consider this a productive capitalization of poetry’s resources within a narrative project.
If you are confused because you remember Addonizio publishing Jimmy and Rita in 1997, you are right: “Jimmy and Rita” was originally a poem, then a book published by BOA Editions, and then the basis for a novel, My Dreams Out in the Street, published by Simon and Schuster in 2007, before the present incarnation of this novel in verse published this year by Stephen F. Austin State UP. Addonizio outlines all of this in the book’s introduction, explaining that she “couldn’t let these two go.” It seems to me that she’s found in them a way into many other stories besides theirs, and they work for exploring the themes of poverty and violence, among others. These characters are not compelling enough in themselves to necessarily merit three books, but they may be more of a form for her: a way into the creative process, an organizing principle, the light she uses to find each poem.
—Jasmine V. Bailey