A Night without Armor
(HarperCollins, 1998)

Fame and fortune do not a poet make. Jewel Kilcher's first book of poetry, A Night without Armor, relies heavily on the conventions of pop-culture musings and lyrical narratives that make Jewel's songs so popular. Although Jewel claims to have been influenced by such songwriter/poets as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, her poetry lacks the power and lyrical inventiveness that those writers possess. A Night without Armor is nothing more than a glossy photograph of Jewel's life, filled with (imagined?) loneliness and heartbreak.

The poems in Jewel's collection consist of three subjects: love, childhood and observations about popular culture. Citing influences by Neruda, Dylan Thomas, Bukowski and Rumi, Jewel changes attitudes throughout the book almost as if she is changing clothes or hairstyles. For example, the first poem in the collection, "As a Child I Walked," is a simple poem based on the Romantic notion of God existing in nature, while the next poem, "The Bony Ribs of Adam," tries to compare choosing fame (as a performer) over love to the biblical story of Adam and Eve choosing personal desire over instructions from God. The narrator's attitudes shift so abruptly between these two poems that the reader is left wondering if there was some point s/he missed.

The major fault of these poems is the lack of specificity and controlling images. Too often, Jewel mixes metaphors, as she does in the poem "So Just Kiss Me": "A blonde flame / a hurricane / wrapped up / in a tiny body / that will come to his arms / like the safest harbor / for mending." The hurricane/harbor image would work if it were written with a sense of destruction. Instead, Jewel claims that the harbor is where the tiny body containing the hurricane will come to be mended. This dissonance between images might work in the hands of a more able poet, but in Jewel's hands the images simply become confusing and trite. The language, too, suffers from awkwardness and trite expression. In "You Tell Me," Jewel uses an overwhelming number of abstractions to comment upon the fact that so many people are downtrodden in this world. The main message of the poem, "I say to you / the heart of Humanity / has not / and will not / be broken," comes across as simple and awkward; the message would be more powerful if it were implied rather than explicitly stated.

Many of the poems read as too aware of themselves for my own taste. "Sun Bathing," "Tai Pei," "Pretty" and "The Slow Migration of Glaciers" delve too deeply into Jewel's own sense of her image and left me thinking, "So what? Big deal." These poems lack the ability to take these personal events and link them to something universal, to something to which the reader can relate. In "Tai Pei," for example, Jewel bemoans the fact that she "is adored by millions / but no one calls." This self-conscious examination of her own psyche comes across as vain, in most instances.

Despite her lack of grounding images and tone, Jewel does create some beautiful turns of phrase in the collection: "As a child I walked / with noisy fingers / along the hemline / of so many meadows," "like the slow migration of birds / nesting momentarily / upon my breast / the lifting / silver and quick." All too often, though, these images get bogged down by the narration and overtelling that accompany them, or are simply tossed into a poem because they sound nice. Rather than painting her poems with evocative images, Jewel seems to prefer telling the reader over and over in elevated, awkward language just what s/he should get out of a poem.

Two poems in particular sum up everything that is wrong with this book: "And So to Receive You" and "I'm Writing to Tell You." In "I'm Writing to Tell You," Jewel says, "and it has become / unbearably obvious / that you love me with / all the originality / of romance novels." The same could be said about this book of poems. "And So to Receive You" tells you why: "I hope her breasts were admired / as mine are / two silver deities / two shining steeples / giving testament to the sky." Jewel's admiration of her own breasts extends to her writing abilities; many of these poems are used as vehicles for Jewel's ego, without the skill and authority to make such statements effective. She should stick to songwriting and singing; at least then I can turn the treble down and the bass up to drown out the lyrics.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

Buy A Night without Armor from