Jia Oak Baker’s Well Enough Said, Reviewed by Stacey Balkun
Winner of the Five Oaks Press 2015 “Spring is Mischief” Contest, Jia Oak Baker’s poetry chapbook Well Enough to Travel takes us on a journey through playfulness and vulnerability. The opening poem, “We Begin at Lake Calhoun,” places us geographically and seasonally:
When the weather turned bitter that winter,
we chose to enjoy it. Too in love to feel sorry
for ourselves, we couldn’t sulk inside
that drafty house. (1-4)
Our speaker and her beloved strap on their skates and dance circles across the frozen lake. On the surface, all is well, but noticing cracks in the ice, they catch sight “of the rush and blackness” that lies beneath them, “the water so deep and dark” (9-10). Within the space of 13 lines—an unfinished sonnet—Baker moves us seamlessly from the romantic to the ominous. This achingly simple poem ends with a question: “How were we to know/in time those fissures would give?” (12-13). We know immediately that the following poems will be complex, nuanced queries into the emotional complications of love.
The craft within Well Enough to Travel meticulously magnifies the loss our speaker feels, using line and stanza breaks to focus readers on larger questions and half meanings. In poems like “Collision,” lists of domestic imagery are followed by inquiries:
. . . Drip, drip,
into the shelves of the door
between jars of sauce and pickles.
I swore he’d have to clean it all up.
Is love always an exaggeration? (8-12)
Baker’s poems are rife with these beautiful and relatable moments of interrogation and self-doubt. As readers, we’re comforted by our speaker’s willingness to admit her vulnerabilities; we feel we’re all in this together. The poem “4 A.M. Failures” is divided into segments indicating prompts or attempts at writing. I found myself drawn to the second section:
A Story is What We Tell Ourselves When There Is No Thereafter
Early sedge rose along the riverbank,
and the brown flower spikes bent like—
I don’t know. There was the abandoned saltbox. Its dusty floor.
The rotting gables and the hole in the roof. Your face buried in my neck. (11-14)
This piece, like the many poems written in first and second person, draws us in. We feel we’re being personally engaged, and lean in closer to hear more. Other poems in this collection take the form of a story being told. A section of “Coup de Grace” shows us a scene with Eve as she’s “slumped/ at the window with her hands in her lap,” regretting her disappointing relationship with Adam (4-5).
Though imaginative, these third person moments don’t seem to pull the reader in quite as well. “Story of a Man” describes an aging man who “makes sure to let/ his eyes linger on [young ladies’] breasts and other body parts. I want them/ to feel good about themselves—it’s the least I can do” (11-13). I wasn’t really sure what to make of this piece as it seems to show us toxic masculinity without making any judgment on this behavior, and I personally wanted to tell Henry that the women were doing just fine without his input. I also had difficulty understanding how it fit into the whole of the chapbook, which contains so many fine lyric moments that interweave into a larger narrative about a relationship specific to our speaker, a relationship that runs deep and yet falters.
The poem at the heart of this relationship and collection is “Pocket Guide to the Cosmos,” which reads as a list of advice, beginning with “I. Call it was it was: a one-night stand” (1). Here, our speaker confronts the conflict of the narrative: her confusion and guilt over a single night of infidelity . Using beautiful imagery to convey the heartbreaking perplexity of love’s aftermath, Baker writes:
VI. Listen to friends who tell you sadness can be diluted like a drink.
VII. Be careful not to mistake street lamps for stars.
VIII. Remember how the sun is lonely, too. (9-12)
And we remember! We’re hurting and loving and glowing, confronting our own loneliness and yet gathering up our own sun-strength, wishing we could share it with her and offer her a drink to show our gratitude for the many ways she so eloquently captures the grief of love. Well Enough to Travel reminds us that even the hardest of loves is worth it, and even if our hearts are unsure, we are well enough to continue the journey and take on whatever moonlit moment comes next.
Baker, Jia Oak. Well Enough to Travel. Five Oaks Press, 2015.