Remember Kim Addonizio’s verse novel, Jimmy & Rita ?

December 27, 2009

I do!  And it’s still “Silk” in my book.

I’ve used it in a couple of my classes at Marist College, and I’ve written about a few of the poems in the collection.  I have to be honest; it’s a phenomenal poetry book and a raw and moving verse novel for adults.  Even Addonizio’s “sequel” to Jimmy & Rita (BOA Editions, 1997), her novel My Dreams Out in the Street, (Simon & Schuster, 2007) just doesn’t live up to the wonderful language and uncontrived story of her verse novel. 

Addonizio’s Jimmy & Rita quickly moves us through the love of two characters, using one- or two-paged poems to tell stories, capture character traits, and convey situations or scenes that deal with Jimmy’s and Rita’s lives.  At about midway through the collection, Addonizio places a poem titled “Silk.”  In this poem, the poet uses dialogue exclusively between her main characters to reveal a truth of mortality: that no matter who we are or what we do, we will all face death and accept or deny it individually.

The lives of Jimmy and Rita shown throughout Addonizio’s book reveal youth, fearlessness, and spontaneity.  However, almost as a slow reprieve amid the surrounding quickness of each “exterior” poem, “Silk” provides us with a longer resonance, an “interior” communication of some mirror images of youth, fearlessness, and spontaneity.  “Silk” conveys death, fear, and reflection/contemplation. 

We see Jimmy and Rita discussing death, sharing their fear of it, and reflecting on their beliefs in what the “afterlife” means to them.  Using lines only of dialogue throughout this poem—which is the only dialogue-only poem of the entire collection—Addonizio captures universal human conditions through the conversation of two lost souls, her main characters. 

The poem begins with Jimmy’s question to Rita, “Rita.  You ever think about dying?” (line 1).  Jimmy is serious even though he has lived his life vicariously up until this point and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the book. 

He initiates a conversation with Rita about mortality, subtly admitting his concern for something other than parties, sex, and good times.  Here we see seriousness through an intimate, intellectual, and spiritual interaction between the main characters.  Rita responds to Jimmy’s question:

I don’t like to. […]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Diane [Rita’s best friend] told me once to imagine a bird holding a silk scarf in its

beak and brushing it across the top of a mountain.  As long as it takes the scarf to wear down the mountain, that’s how many times

we come back. (2, 15-18)

Rita shares a profound image and idea with Jimmy as their conversation focuses not only on death and dying but also on the possibility of existence after death.  To present these very serious matters of mortality, Addonizio skillfully uses an intimate scene held together by dialogue.  If the poet had presented the age-old questions of death and the afterlife amid any of the other poems in her book, it would have been cliché. 

Throughout the collection, especially before “Silk,” before we realize that Jimmy and Rita really do have normal, legitimate concerns about life, any mention of dying is skewed with a single voice of fearlessness coming from either Rita or Jimmy.[1] 

Even in “Her Voice,” where Rita talks of Jimmy’s restless nights in which “[h]e wakes up […] sure / he’s dying, the air close, / panic making it harder / just to breathe” (12-15), Addonizio captures the fear of mortality almost from afar as Rita witnesses only what she thinks Jimmy feels. 

In “Silk” the interaction of Jimmy and Rita is real, so is their conversation about dying and what may lie beyond the physical.  They speak to each other, question each other’s beliefs, and come to their own terms, whether it is to accept or deny the inevitable end. 

As Jimmy and Rita move closer together on a more intimately spiritual level, the conversation slows; the words are more reserved and polite.  Jimmy suggests, “Rita. […] / Let’s not die” (24, 26).  Her comforting response, “Go to sleep, baby.  We won’t” (27), ends the discourse. 

This intertwining of empathy and emotion works because of dialogue.  The rhythm slows because of dialogue, and we realize that if two young, careless free spirits ponder the inevitable, we have no choice but to question our own mortality as well. 

Addonizio has captured not only the harshness of street life in Jimmy & Rita, but she has also planted a profound sense of spiritual awareness within “Silk,” the book’s core.

If you’ve never read this book, I suggest you read it soon! 

And please let us know your favorite verse novel(s).  I’m still looking for the gutsy ones…

[1] This can be seen in “Dead Men,” page 17.


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