September 3, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Finding a Drawer Full of Drivers’ Licenses:,” by Jennifer L. Knox, appears in the Sept/Oct issue of the Kenyon Review.

When I first came across Jennifer L. Knox’s “Finding a Drawer Full of Drivers’ Licenses:,” I had recently sat down with Monica Youn’s essay “Petrarch’s Hangover: An Argument in Five Sonnets,” which takes up the role of disproportion in the sonnet form. Youn makes a compelling case for fundamental imbalance—rather than, say, the turn or the fourteen-line structure—as the sonnet’s defining characteristic, and she offers examples of how the inherently overbearing nature of the octet might be used to exert tonal, thematic, or other influence over the lines that follow.

And so disproportion was on my mind when I read Knox’s poem. The disproportion that initially caught my attention, though, wasn’t within the fourteen lines, but outside of them. “Finding a Drawer Full of Drivers’ Licenses:” begins with an outsize epigraph; the space generally reserved for a snippet of language or quick glimpse of setting instead takes up about as much of the page as the actual poem. In the abstract, bulky epigraphs sometimes disagree with me—I can wonder why the poem below wasn’t up for incorporating the appended information, for internally doing the work of history and context. But Knox’s epigraph is necessary where it is, expert in its design. It allows the poem that follows to begin at the moment of being overwhelmed, of being steeped in the lurid news cycle, aware enough of the appeal to the public to know what to look for. To be on edge. Someone moves through the home of a relative, a neighbor, an employer. The line “If you find a drawer full of drivers’ licenses at your uncle’s house, call us” sticks in the back of their mind, and with every drawer they pull open, they experience a small preliminary terror as they remember the directive to the public, followed by relief at each drawer that is not full of licenses.

Until the one that is. Knox’s tight, almost buoyant lines feel like they are trying very hard, above all, to stay calm. With its disarming and at times folksy language (see, for example, that “why” dropped into the line “why, it’d be like peering / out of the freezer through the narrowing window of ice”), this poem does a masterful job of evoking the veneer of evenness that papers over the moment of panic, pivoting away from the subject of the killings to giggle at passé fashion and outmoded technology, unable, in the moment, to process the terror that has loomed for so long and now makes itself known.