In his debut poetry collection, The Crossing, Jonathan Fink explores themes surrounding the human body and mind in relation to suffering, labor, and most prominently, the human condition. He begins with a poem entitled “The Crossing” and a short explanation of a Mindanao tribe belief that, “The soul leaves the body in sleep, then returns to wake it; death occurs when the soul leaves permanently.” Whether or not you agree with this belief, I found it provided a background setting for the rest of the poems in Fink’s collection.
His main discussions of the human body are introduced in the first poem, a series of six shorter poems, titled, “The Promise of the Body is its Dream” in which he explores his interest in the structure of the body and especially the mind in relation to writer’s block. The first of these, “Vitruvian Man,” dives into a free verse description of the human body and I found that immediately Fink’s ability to contrast nature with machine shown through. He writes, “And where the compass left its mark I draw the belly of a man; how all things radiate from here, the true machine,” combining what is manmade and man himself, which is a comparison that repeated appears in the book.
This is also the first taste readers get of the various and differing writing styles presented in the rest of this poetry collection. Fink showcased his talents as a poet by including not only free verse, most common among modern poets, but also traditional villanelles and sonnets, which in my experience of reading poetry have mainly found written in the past century or earlier. Breaking from his free verse does not alter the affect his poetry has on the reader but instead strengthens the diversity in the emotions and thoughts evoked by his work.
One poem in particular that I believe captures the prominent theme of the “human condition” is his free verse poem, “The Lighthouse Keeper.” What stood out most to me was Fink’s ability to combine human labor and emotion in one poem and also from two different perspectives, while keeping it in third person. When I say this I mean that he describes the work of the keeper and his internal desires as well as the destinations and thoughts of the sailors using the light to guide them back to shore, or at least away from dangerous rocks.
In my personal favorite passage from the poem he writes,
The sailors, once they reach the bay,
Already have forgotten him again,
Absconding landward to their homes.
And what can stop the constant flux of ships
Unbidden and abrupt as rain?
With close of night descending on the bay
And ships forever lost in rain,
He gives again the thankless gift of home.
What I find intriguing about these two stanzas is Fink’s portrayal of the human mind in particular and its relation to the “human condition.” Here, the sailors are completely dependent on the lighthouse keeper in order to get home safely, and once they do, he is erased from their minds completely. On the other side of that, the keeper is aware of it, however, he continues to light the lighthouse despite any internal conflict of being underappreciated.
Another notable poem is his villanelle, “Passage,” whose title closely relates to the collection’s and general theme of passing on. What stuck out to me when first reading this were the refrains, “How quickly memory tempers into form,” and “It’s not the past, but passing to be mourned.” Not only are these two lines beautifully written, but they sum up the Fink’s “human condition” and suffering themes as they both express mortality and the realization of a temporary existence. When it comes to loss, whether of a person or thing, Fink’s second refrain comments on the human nature of living in the past once someone has died and mourning all the times that are now gone and how it is the wrong aspect to focus on. Rather than stay in a past we can not fix or bring back, we should focus on the present and how to move on. He writes,
While some widow waking in a storm,
Extends her arm where absent darling lay,
How quickly memory tempers into form.
Which I believe is a beautiful, though sad, passage on the realization of mortality and my favorite inclusion of his first refrain. It shows the tragic toll death can have on loved ones of the departed as their memory sometimes takes over during their grieving so they do not feel alone or that they now have to live without that person or thing.
Lastly, the final poem included in Fink’s, “The Crossing,” is the “Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911,” which is written in the same form as the first poem, “The Promise of the Body is its Dream.” Here, he brilliantly breaks down the historical into 18 small poems that create a timeline in which the fire took place, from the mindset of the workers in the factory to the reactions of people observing the fire from the street. He starts with “Arrival” and “The First Day” where he describes a girl who works at the factory being dropped off, though it is not clear if it is at the start of the day when the fire took place. One of the more emotional inclusions is the fourth poem, “Letter From a Young Woman to Her Mother,” where Fink puts himself in the mind of one of the girls who is homesick but has to continue to support her family, and writes “I see you standing in the doorway to my room, but even in my dreams your voice is gone.” After these beginning poems, he moves on into when the fire begins and strategically changes perspectives within his poems as seen with “Samuel Levine, a Machine Operator, Escapes Through the Elevator Shaft,” and “Images from the Street III,” once again showing his masterful writing talent.