Jenny Bitner,
(Pine Press, 1995)

Entering Jenny Bitner's poetry is like slipping into a lake at midnight. It's the kind of water you can trust even though it's black and deep and you're not sure if you can swim.

"I love the water and will do anything for it," she tells us in her poem "Blind." You have no choice but to believe her.

Bitner's water is that of a Pennsylvania mountain lake, her new home in San Francisco "beautiful, foggy city - with eyes," and the liquidity of her own body where she wants to "let the tide of the ocean drag me to the moon."

"Most I want the water / to slick off my body -- / to live in it, work in it / but still breathe the air," she writes in "Watching the Beaver."

Bitner's richly sensual writing blends elements of sexual love with familial love in a way that questions the quality of both, yet refuses to categorize ways of loving.

"If I counted all of the moments I watched you, the nights, and / the days, and the moments in between-the grey-and showed them / all to you, this would be nakedness," she writes of a lover in "The Watch." In the next stanza: "I feel he has only started watching me recently, like / realizing in the elevator you are singing to a song you didn't hear," she writes of her father.

What brings these elements together in this poem, and in many others, is the primacy of the natural world: "You are looking at my face when / we make love to see, and you look at my mouth which is open and / I am breathing out of my nose and my mouth like an animal. And / suddenly I want to be in my father's garden with him. I want to / look at him over the tomato rows and be so caught in the picking / motion, the round red and dirt in our hands, that I can see in / him what we are watching for."

Bitner is not afraid to explore the tough questions, like "What do you think heaven is?" in her poem "Heaven." Her conclusion is something of a riddle, that heaven is the space between all of the sensations in balance: "Sweet ambiguity -- holding the universe in suspended disbelief, / never trusting anyone with all of the answers."

For her, heaven is found in the in-betweenness of loving a woman and loving a man, the warm safety nestled between her parents, and the "balance for the tongue" of the Pennsylvania Dutch seven sweets and seven sours.

She's also not afraid to revel the darkness or "blackness of spirit" of human nature. In "Force," she tells us that "even the young invent games / for holding back" and shows us a girl in a closet with a boy after playing "spin-the-bottle." He says, "let's not." And her reaction: "You want to bite him / with all the power of your mouth / in one supreme effort / to be a physical force."

Bitner's poetry can be just as delicate as it is forceful, trading a waterfall crash for a gentle spring misting. In the simple love poem "Hands," she writes: "I like your hands making up their minds, to / touch someone. I like your hands thinking / about touching someone and then laying / still."

[ by Daina Savage ]