Jack: A Beanstalk Life, Joanne Lowery's collection of forty-five Jack-and-the-Beanstalk poems, begins with chance and ends with desire. "Chance," the first poem: what are the odds? ("Odds indeed is another poem in the collection that addresses the same questions.) Fantastic as the fairy tale is, it's a legitimate question. We're talking about a miracle, after all. Her conclusion: "The lad knows everything/happens for a reason./ It's no accident..." This is a story, a foundational fairy tale of childhood: it can be no other way. Similarly, the poem "Entelechy," an Aristotlean metaphysical concept meaning "having one's end within" (i.e., a destiny foretold), tells us that Jack basically had no choice in being Jack and doing his Jackish things.
"Desire," the final poem: what drives destiny? Perhaps the story could be no other way, but it's only foreordained to the extent "We are what we are./Jack was Jack.../Jack wants what Jack wants/forever and forever." Character = fate.
Which is all just to say, the reader enjoys these poems for their playfulness and inventiveness, their implicit humor. Don't look for a moral. You won't find one in the fairy tale or the poems. All you have is the story. The story is, as it were, foretold.
All single-word titles (except for "Holy, Holy, Holy," which after all is one word repeated thrice, and "Right Angles"), each poem focuses on some aspect of the fairy tale. (Do yourself a favor and read the fairy tale first, just to be familiar with it.) In many of the poems – hence, the title? – we encounter Jack actually on the beanstalk ("Shinnying," "Photosynthesis," Silk," "Altitude," "Sunshine," "Right Angles," "Kite," "Lateral," to name a few). The beanstalk represents many things in the life of Jack, including God (see "Pole"), hope/ambition (see "Aspiration") "a monument to his boyish enthusiasm" (see "Reality"). What he sees – life in miniature, as if from an airplane window – anticipates, encounters, achieves, are all re-imagined by Lowery to give a fresh look at the familiar story. Take Milky-White, for example, the cow Jack traded for his beans. In what sense was this a betrayal? Is her life better without Jack?
The dimwitted ne'er-do-well of the fairy tale may be craftier than he's given credit for. Sure, we knew he was forced to live by his wits, but what do we actually know about his ambition? Is he just the biggest con man in literature?
While most of the poems are told in a sort of omniscient narrative voice (one that frequently cracks wise), some are addressed to the reader, challenging and sometimes dismissive. In "Tools," she demands that the reader "Tell me they [your tools] make your life/easier, higher." The "tools" are your hands, just as Jack's hands served him. In "Desire" Lowery addresses the reader:
So you think Jack endured
leathery leaves, legumes with chimes
fear of heights and loneliness
Shows what you know.
This poem is in defense of Jack, what motivates him, what he aspires to, which is curious since a number of the poems are addressed to Jack himself, and they aren't very flattering. Indeed, they pin the boy to the wall. In "Rotation" she asks him, "Jack, weren't you daft up there and spinning?" In "Update" she tells him, "Jack, you were just a rough rude/boy, maker of bad bargains." ? In "Retribution," Lowery writes, "Jack, don't try telling us/you were a good boy./We know the story/of your slipshod behavior." To sum up in "Outcomes": "Jack lives for the moment,/a piggish boy."
And indeed, what about Jack? If we are taking a revisionist look at the fairy tale, what about the main character? If character = fate, is Jack a hero? What is heroism, anyway? (A subject of another Lowery collection, Heroics). The dimwitted ne'er-do-well of the fairy tale may be craftier than he's given credit for. Sure, we knew he was forced to live by his wits, but what do we actually know about his ambition? Is he just the biggest con man in literature? Should we simply reserve judgment, take the facts into account? Lowery lets you decide with provocative questions, as in "Reality":
Notice how Jack leaves
his mother below, leaves
a stranger's wife above
to cling to a plant.
What does one make of that?
But fairy tales don't have morals, and this collection is rooted in the granddaddy of all fairy tales. Fairy tales are often the most violent and cruel of all children's tales, without any sense of redeeming "meaning" or even, necessarily, a cautionary lesson. So ultimately we are left with a sense of comedy and poetic wordplay. And that's all we need to ask for, really. Still, the nagging questions: Is Lowery mocking our search for a deeper meaning? Is she teasing us? IS JOANNE LOWERY JUST FUCKING WITH US? The answer to that riddle may depend on:
if anyone can explain a daydream,
if anyone can justify a life.