Urban Imprisonment

Manhattan as a Second Language By Jana Harris Harper and Row: $5.95; 98 pp.

MANHATTN AS A Second Language grapples with the power of language. The women in Jana Harris's poems are imprisoned or empowered by words, even the tones and textures of their voices or other voices. Even her worst poems are valid experiments displaying the voices of people Harris has heard, people who don't speak the way she would write. In these poems the language rings somewhat flat because Harris is uneasy using certain alien voices. At her best, Harris ties together the different voices with a strong, frank thread of her own.

The book name and the first stanza of its title work convey the message of most of the first half of the book--entrapment in urban society:

in this new place

from a 12th story window

she looks across black

smokestacked roofs

writing about Alaska

and the Aleut raven

guarding Spirit-of-the-Smoke-Hole,

thinks of going down

into the street

windows curtained

Most of the worries of the woman in this poem stem from her attempts to learn a second language, a tongue of stale, curtained windows. She is imprisoned not by the street but by her aversion to her sole option--going down to the street and speaking the street language of the men she will find there. The lines she repeats--"thinks of going down into the street"--are the antithesis of her images of Alaska, the source of "williwas wind," volcanoes, spruces, birds, and the Bering Sea.

Harris's women are also imprisoned by the thoughts about men that they voice; some call the names of dead husbands, for instance. Others, imprisoned by job descriptions, define themselves by what they do. To describe her life's purpose, one woman says. "I canned them pears/and I canned them pears." The vitality of these poems lies in the contrast of their doldrums today with the glamor of other lives and locales--the voices in the poems trap themselves but manage to describe a broad, exciting world.

In fact, Harris risks avoiding her own voice in some of the poems. Some of these works use a man's voice to tell a tale through his letters, with almost no interjections from the poet herself. Harris's interpretations of the man and his letters lie in how she strings together the images, what images she chooses to have him describe, and in the creation of this male character. The end result is a near-complete adoption of another voice which threatens to imprison the poet, who is reduced to reading and retelling letters. Nevertheless, the experiment works when Harris allows the letter-writer to stretch the limits of the poem to include banter, as she writes in "The Man After Crossing the Gulf from Kodiak":

And then there's this Eskimo Tommy,

a skinny five-footer,

thick lenses and hard hearing

Her writer here writes for his reader instead of merely musing, and that is the letter's great strength.

DIRECT EXPERIENCE seems a more exciting source of images in the poems. When talking in her own voice. Harris tends to adopt interesting word combinations and compound words: "broomhandle-killing/that squirrel, carstunned and lost" she writes in "Manhattan As A Second Language." Asides in poetry are always dangerous, but when Harris writes in the first person she deals successfully with complex, convoluted images without losing the thread of her poetry. In "The Coddling Moth," she successfully creates a complicated, sensual comparison between a man and a moth, follows the moth into an apple grove, and leaps to agricultural science, throwing in the sarcastic lines "Polson pussy/synthesized and bottled." Then she returns to the man the poem describes, without ever confusing her images. In another poem, she addresses a snake, mocking and idolizing until the snake becomes an ideal woman. And the section of poems called "Talking That Talk" contrasts her voice against those of others, creating a rich, colloquial interior monologue that mirrors the city more accurately than would mere description.

For example, in "Tight Denim Jeans," Harris writes:

how do ya get 'em on? she said,

have surgery, take steam baths,

slimnastic classes 'n Dr. Nazi's

dietclinic fatshots for a month?

The woman narrator here can afford to be much more subjective than the poet; the urban chic, Seventies ideal of woman-as-stick is livened up by the speaker's flair. Here, the language gives power to this woman in her struggle against male-dominated popular fashion, against Manhattan.

THOUGH HARRIS underutilized her own voice in some poems, it stretches to encompass worlds in Harris's later "Chants," which she places, curiously enough, toward the beginning of the book. In "Beneath the Pole of Proud Raven," a voice takes over wolf's claws, fish's skin, and other natural powers, becoming everything. Harris's chants are prayers, exciting and meant to be read aloud. Her words are weapons in a struggle against the conventions of the city and the "second language" of urbanites.

These poems portray a battle between nature and the city; Harris clearly favors nature, which sometimes wins, sometimes loses. As a poet, she too is struggling for a balance between her voice and what she sees. When she "wins" and achieves the balance, she breaks through her own habitual language structures with new syntax combinations, through the limitations of whatever form she is using with a fresh attitude, and through the conventions of poetry with a unique style. Manhattan As A Second Language chronicles her fight against the weighty ceiling of writing in a world where so much has already been done. It is worth reading, not only because it shows her development as a poet, but because, in the end, her woman's voice becomes strong after facing all the second languages that oppose it.