Jay Deshpande, Love the Stranger Review
by Emily O’Neill
I saw Jay Deshpande in the Times Square Olive Garden the Saturday after I turned 26. The Pope was in New York too, or else had been earlier in the week. I spent the whole bus ride down listening to the same playlist entitled “ASTORIA” and reading an endless Rolling Stone article about this new, cool Pope and his impending album release. I spent four hours on the same article because I kept losing my place because I had a dangerously high fever and should not have agreed to travel. Food poisoning. The worst of my life. Worse even than the time I ate an oyster at a restaurant opening and ended up on my knees for two straight days. No, two days would have been lucky this time. This birthday death plague lasted a full seven and nearly killed me.
Smack in the middle of it, all the sweating and crying and fever dreams, is the third floor of the Times Square Olive Garden swollen with people waiting for tables where they’ll eat endless pasta boiled in unsalted water and hovering in the scrum is Jay, who I’d only just met a few weeks earlier. Who smiled at me as if he recognized me too, who was too gentle to interrupt me charging back downstairs to my date after throwing up the three spoonfuls of soup I’d attempted (yes, I was on a date and my deathbed at the same time) and so the only exchange we had was an unspoken “it can’t possibly be you, can it?”
Jay’s book, Love The Stranger, reminds me very much of this moment of recognition. His poems invite me many uncanny places, locations and moments I feel able to stand inside of, his words locating me using the most intangible familiarities. Who is it who said that poetry is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange? I say it to my students all the time but can’t remember where I got it from. Jay’s writing does exactly that. There are as many bedrooms in this book as castles, but both seem equally possible to inhabit. You feel where he catches his breath in a line and find yourself mirroring the action– “There is nothing quite so alien as being/correct” (from “Strength”) and “how the summer clenched/resolutely not in love with anything” (from “Klaxon”)–not breathing either until he gives you permission to. His words take your body away, then return it to you changed.
“We come here/to press our backs up against the invisible” he writes in “Commemoration” and I remember nearly fainting in the Olive Garden elevator from my own impossible heat. Jay’s poems are ruthless and quiet at once: “we thought/we came for purpose until purpose//came for us.” There are so many bodies, so many moments of dangerous intimacy suddenly absent from the life of the speaker, so much jazz to distract and restructure a person by the the time they’ve made it out the other side of this book. He reminds us “we are holding the lion before we want/to hold the lion” and it is terrifyingly specific, the way all fever dreams are, the way poems must be: asking me to believe my eyes even when I’m certain they’re playing tricks.
Emily O’Neill is a writer, artist, and proud Jersey girl. Her recent poems and stories can be found in Cutbank, The Journal, Minnesota Review, Redivider, and Washington Square, among others. Her debut collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks: Celeris (Fog Machine, 2016) and You Can’t Pick Your Genre (Jellyfish Highway, 2016). She teaches writing at the Boston Center for Adult Education and edits poetry for Wyvern Lit.