Furniture Press, 2014
Available at Small Press Distribution.
“The legendary Calamity Jane was plucked up by Doris Day and tarted out by Jane Russell in the movies, butched down by Robyn Weigert on Deadwood, and tackled with varying degrees of spunk and grit by dozens of other actors, biographers and braggarts. She likely aggrandized aspects of her own adventures in an almost assuredly ghost-written memoir, Life and Times of Calamity Jane by Herself, which was published as a souvenir pamphlet for admirers to take away from her dime museum and wild west show appearances. Whether or not she was all she has been said to be—military hero, eagle-eyed sharpshooter, expert equestrian, boozehound-lover of Bill Hickok and other wild men, and women—she was extraordinary, every bit as much for her own stubborn ordinariness as for her irregular feats and tall tales. Thomas Devaney’s CALAMITY JANE is epic poetry recast for the drama of daily life, a libretto as vivid on the page as it is anticipated in performance. Here, Martha Jane Canary is a horse-crazy youngster who loses her parents too early and grows up too fast, a big sister-cum-head-of-household who makes a living at mostly menial labor, washing dishes and patching holes, keeping her younger siblings warm and keeping herself alive, for a while, at least, for a good half-century. Isn’t that enough? Living life doesn’t make anyone a hero, but for some, for Jane, it may be heroic simply to survive.
Poetry, when it strikes deep, is always calamitous. Thomas Devaney’s marvelous and moving libretto on this transgressive, gender-disrupting legend, the True Jane of the Wild West, conjures up echoes of other classic Janes—Yeats’ Crazy Jane and Baraka’s Crow Jane—both figures of radical, plainspoken testifying. This captivating book-length poem interrogates the process by which legends are made and dismantled. CALAMITY JANE emerges as an exemplum of Manifest Destiny and a victim of its brutal logic. At bottom, these poems deal with self-fashioning, but since calamity also means the trauma women’s bodies have always been subjected to Devaney exposes this repressed thread of the legend with extraordinary sensitivity. This is no sunny Doris Day version of American history, people. “When you have a name your story is true… the best place for me to hide has always been/right in my name—Calamity Jane.
Thomas Devaney’s CALAMITY JANE is a beautiful contradiction. Based on the life and times of the feminist icon, this opera-in-verse is a study in a particular kind of bad-ass western interior-fierce, scared, grief-stricken, adventurous, and lovelorn. The individual pieces are moving as lyric poetry per se, but when read as an operatic series, they take on the historical heft of the epic. The result is a powerful song cycle that is as idiosyncratic as it is emblematically American.
from Calamity Jane
You can hide out in plain sight.
The best hideouts are often close by
and maybe with a friend.
I’m not giving any secrets away here,
but when you have name like mine you can’t hide
for long. Or else I’ll put it this way:
the best place for me to hide has always been—
write in my name—Calamity Jane.