Ruthlessly honest and unblinking, the poems in Jazzy Danziger's debut collection, Darkroom, shimmer on the page

Ruthlessly honest and unblinking, the poems in Jazzy Danziger's debut collection, <i>Darkroom</i>, shimmer on the page
Jennifer Silverberg
Jazzy Danziger

In one of her lives, 27-year-old Jazzy Loyal works as a PR account executive for the Brighton Agency in Clayton. Her area of expertise involves dog, cat and ferret food. She and her husband, Brian, a biomedical engineer, live in an old house in Webster Groves that may or may not be haunted. In person she radiates good-natured competence. The only neurosis she'll admit to is a refusal to fly: She fears the loss of control during takeoff.

In her other life, she's Jazzy Danziger, a poet. Growing up in Maitland, Florida, near Orlando, she never realized such people existed (except to contribute work for school anthologies). As a freshman at Washington University, she discovered that they indeed walk among us, hidden in plain sight, disguised as professors and account executives, writing books of their own. She also discovered she was one of them.

Earlier this spring Danziger published her first poetry collection, Darkroom. The manuscript won the University of Wisconsin's Brittingham Prize for a previously unpublished book of poems. The competition is a prestigious one — the list of past judges reads like a who's who of Pulitzer winners and U.S. poets laureate — but this being poetry, the prize itself is publication (along with $1,000 and a $1,500 honorarium for giving a reading on campus). Ron Wallace, founder and long-time co-director of Wisconsin's creative writing program and editor of the University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series, says Danziger's collection is among his all-time favorites since the prize was first awarded in 1985. The book marks her as one of the most promising young poets in the country — with one of the most distinctive names.

"People are surprised by my name, not when they meet me, but when they read my book," Danziger admits. In college she was encouraged to publish under her given name, Jessica, which she'd abandoned early in elementary school after discovering four other Jessicas in her class, but she resisted. "When I write, I feel like Jazzy Danziger."

There's very little of cheerful Jazzy Loyal in Darkroom. The book is an exploration of Jazzy Danziger's obsessions: with mourning, with memory and its constant shadow, guilt — the question of whether, in the act of remembering and retelling, we create a new memory that distorts the truth — and, in particular, how those things relate to her mother, who committed suicide the summer Danziger was fourteen.

"In my day-to-day life," Danziger says, "I'm quiet and shy, and I try not to offend. When I tell people about my mom, I'm more concerned with their feelings. But in poetry I can be tough. I say what's really happening. I don't hide something because I'm worried about what people will think. Writing is a release, a confession in a form comfortable to me."

The language is as unsparing as what it describes. It appears to be straightforward, but, like the work of one of Danziger's favorite poets, Brenda Shaughnessy, it's riddled with unexpected barbs that draw the blood of recognition. Wallace describes Danziger's voice as "lyrical, rich and exuberant — it sings, and it bites."

In "The Visitor," one of Darkroom's most harrowing poems, Danziger describes her father's visit to her at camp after her mother died.

...strange figure, Dad — the long flight
from Florida, and he is here mid-summer,

mid-session, made weird by the light
and her surprise. He is crying a little.
She thinks of her brother fallen from a high place.

Thinks of glass-cut skin, of a beating — there is so little time
for imaginings, because she is shaking her father—
she is small and panicked, little animal,

and when he says Mommy died it is not the idea that hurts
so much as the words' imprecision, their silliness, the way they fall loosely
around her. Passive phrase, as if this was out of her mother's control—
she already knows in her body that's false.

"It was a difficult poem to write," Danziger says. "It was a shift in reality. It was like a movie. I felt I could not do it justice. Dillon Johnston, one of my professors at Wash. U., told me to stop circling around and just write it. He said, 'Why not try?'"

Danziger wrote the earlier poems in Darkroom, the ones about her childhood, as an undergraduate, but she revised them heavily and composed the rest of the collection in graduate school at the University of Virginia, where she also edited the literary magazine, Meridian. She credits Rita Dove and Gregory Orr, her professors at UVA, for teaching her how to tighten her language and be more selective of narrative details.

But her voice, the most striking feature of her poetry, was there from the start.

Says Mary Jo Bang, another of Danziger's professors at Wash. U.: "As a student in my advanced poetry workshop, she wasn't practicing in order to write better poems later, she was already writing fully realized poems that deserved to be read by a larger audience."

As the editor of Best New Poets, a UVA publication that anthologizes the work of 50 unknowns each year, Danziger is well aware that plenty of other talented young poets are out there. More than 900 of them — some not so young — submitted books to the Brittingham Prize committee the year Danziger sent in Darkroom.

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