In The Burning Where Breath Used To Be, Jen Karetnick offers a collection of semi-autobiographical poems that mixes emotion with logic in its examinations. Ruminations on culture, experience, womanhood, and science ground the reader in Karetnick’s poems.
The collection’s opening poem, “23andMe Says My Body Is a Sanctuary City,” encapsulates the speaker’s relationship with her DNA results translated across different universal contexts. She wonders: “who have better prospects at being made into widows on refugee / boats that have been returned to the wholesale of war,” echoing the sentiment in the next stanza: “from the cyclic pitch of death flights, in the in-flux policies in / detention rooms at airports, where green cards change to red.” The ache of this kind of awareness, coupled with the beauty of the language, runs through every poem, allowing the reader to notice and glean the truth in each line.
Biological and mathematical terminology is expertly used throughout the poems, as well. In “Extreme Value Theorem”, the speaker reminisces on the reactions to her tattoo being visible while wearing her wedding dress: “I’d intended to hide it, I confess / but had it placed too high up on the shelf / of my scapula.” An extreme value theorem guarantees there is a maximum and minimum value, which is clearly shown in the poem based on the high-intensity reactions and the speaker’s overall nonchalance: “the rabbi nearly belched / the prayers as if he had lox for breakfast; my mother attempted to ignore, herself, the tattoo framed by my wedding dress.” Instances like these are sprinkled throughout each poem, allowing universal experiences to become framed in a new light with precision and elegance.
Finally, Karetnick utilizes ailing organs or biological processes in relation to her experiences in life. The poem “Dyskinetic” compares her aching soldier to America: “Frayed and inflamed, your parts do not like to work / together.” Current political and social issues are examined closely: her experience of being a teacher, specifically during fearful times of the ever-rising school shooter, provide an example of the ways in which Karetnick seeks to connect on a universal level that which is specific to her speaker. In her poem “How to Dis/Arm a Female Teacher”, the opening stanza boldly states: “Don’t offer me the Chic Lady Handgun / with a barrel the color of bubblegum, / faux alligator case included / to carry with tests and term papers done.” These tongue-in-cheek reflections of modern times are prevalent throughout the collection. Sometimes they are balanced with the past, such as in “Sonnets for Code Red”, a poem which finds its speaker drawing comparisons between nuclear bomb drills in 1975 and school shooter drills in 2015. Sometimes these poems are in response to articles, art, or statements. “Nobody Dies Because They Don’t Have Access to Health Care” serves as a title for one of the poems, yet it is also a quote attributed to Rep. Raúl Labrador. “Economic Understandings” is in direct response to Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.” She questions: “Who will be the first to move this glass? It’s clear / no one pays attention to the Irish maid / lowering like a willow the dragging weight / of a bird bigger than the space it’s allotted”, pushing the reader to wonder the same.
Womanhood is also emphasized, specifically in Karetnick’s experiences. She writes about Botox, anorexia, menopause, motherhood, and sisterhood. Judaism is also a part of her life and this collection’s poems.
The Burning Where Breath Used To Be was a riveting read with its nuance of normality. Karetnick brings attention to the importance of the present moment while reflecting on the past and the universal worries of humanity. She catches your breath, and she won’t give it back.
Bethany Milholland is a senior at The University of Evansville majoring in Creative Writing. She is the former Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Evansville Review. She is also a former intern for her University’s magazine The Crescent. In her spare time, she enjoys earning a cat’s love and shopping at every thrift store within a thirty-mile radius.