The Book of Jane by Jennifer Habel is the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize winner. Habel is the author of Good Reason, winner of the 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition, and In the Little House, winner of the 2008 Copperdome Chapbook Prize. She is currently the Coordinator of Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati.
This collection begins with a very Dick and Jane start for those old enough to recall those readers. The lines are short; Jane is expressed in the third person. Jane is also smart, however, not as smart as her husband or father or even her brother with a lower IQ. There is a feeling of place based on gender and the role the female is forced to assume in society. Jane must lose ten pounds. Even the necklace she wants to wear is “faceted, like a concession,” The verse continues, and it grows to “The Doll in the Convent” where the lines remain simple but create a powerful rhythm demonstrating the power behind what is held back.
The cover of the book reminded me of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. The faceless portrait will later be emphasized in the closing poem. There was a small reference to Woolf’s work To the Light House in the collection which itself trigger plenty of thoughts about gender roles in society, especially Charles Tansley’s “Women can’t write, women can’t paint.” Everything I was thinking throughout the collection, Woolf and Bell included, cumulated in the final poem “Matisse’s Great Granddaughter or Jane the Long Way.” This long poem had me searching for the paintings referenced and catching the moment when I realized what Sophie Matisse had done with her Mona Lisa and Descending Staircase. The Book of Jane is undoubtedly an enlightening collection of poetry in the tradition of the Iowa Poetry Prize.