SPRING 2014: "Tunneling Toward the Sun"
In the Spirit of T'ao Ch'ien, ed. Charles Rossiter (Kanona, NY: Foothills Publishing, 2012), 44 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-931053-87-0. $16.
This perfect bound volume with black and white cover art and red lettering, and red end sheets, visually evokes Chinese culture, especially with the added red thread stitched through the binding. Opening it, I expect to enter the place of "peach blossom spring," the utopia of T'ao Ch'ien, a 4th century Chinese poet who retreated to the mountains to write. By the end of this slim volume, I have stepped through the river of their common spring.
Five poets, each with a section and divider page with their name, an excerpt, and a tiny graphical portion of the cover image, were asked for poems evoking the manner of the mountain recluse poets of ancient China. To get bearings, there's a brief introduction from the editor, Charles Rossiter, who lists the characteristics the poems share with T'ao Ch'ien: "plain spoken," "relationship with the natural world," and "critical of social injustice." I would add that the poems are also lean, cutting out the noise of modern life, and evoke the "quiet voice within," as Bashō would call it, since the poets appear to have retreated from the world in order to write poems.
Sam Hamill, known for "Poets Against the War," has been translating Chinese and Japanese poets for many decades. His eleven poems have the voice of lived life, one still questioning: from "True Peace":
What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I've grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine's the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.
His sequence "Lessons from Thieves," shows Hamill a learned student of The Way, each section bringing the narrator toward an understanding of emptiness:
I'll cherish this emptiness
you left behind. "Attain hsu!"—
Lao Tzu—"Emptiness supreme."
The flower is in the pot.
The blossom is in the mind.
Michael Czarnecki, who lives off-the-grid in upstate New York, has a poem titled "In The Spirit of T'ao Ch'ien: a Sequence of 15 poems," styled after haiku in their clipped voice and observation of nature: "Raven's hoarse croak catches my ear," and "I put on shirt, step through door," and
Sixty spring have met me here
I smile, another on its way.
The poet shows the seasons in a voice of one who lives them, noticing hummingbirds, blackbirds, first snow, morning dew, a waxing moon, and a harvest of pumpkins. Yet there is something else here, perhaps a little sadness, a bit of Weltschmerz, a reminder that the retreat from modern life was the right choice for this poet.
David Budbill, whose poems have frequently appeared in The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, has a variety of styles, from narrative to prose to syllabic. His poems are occasionally self-referential, such as when Grace Paley wrote him:
We write big, David, because
we want to be understood.
This is part of his self-exploration, where the "voice calling // to you from inside yourself" must be written down, and the inner landscape is the place where real work takes place:
Empty tea cup, empty mind,
There are excerpts from Rossiter's two longer sequences: four taken from "Cold Mountain 2000: Han Shan In the City," and four from "Lakeside Meditations." An accepting, and, I hesitatingly say content, recluse:
These days I seek only peace,
stay back from things of the world,
If I could make it on roots and berries
I'd never go to town again.
The wilderness poet known as Antler completes this volume. Several poems address the intricacy of life with death, as in "Mother Hummingbird Thought," where a hummingbird, deep in a canyon, "perches on the skull of the driver" still in the vehicle that went over the cliff, and
perhaps one of these eyeholes
would be a safe place
for a nest
There's also inner contentment, when paddling out onto a lake's center from the darkened shore to look back and
see the trees at my camp
begin to be touched by the sun, ("Catching the Sunrise"),
or when the mind can turn paper snowflakes, still "taped to windows" come summer, into a cool pleasure, as the narrator admires
this 100 degree
("Doting on Summer Snowflake Shadows").
Although these poets are apart from the mainstream, they all have a desire to instill it with a bit of the quiet mind that knows self and that to live as a part of the natural world is to have heaven on earth. They do it with their poems, sent out into the world, as Rossiter proclaims in the voice of Gary Snyder:
get it right
be sure you get it right
pass it on.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Weaving the World Together
Dream-Shuttle by Carolyn Gelland (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2013), 48 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-59948-438-9. $11.
The weaving of dreams in Carolyn Gelland's second volume, Dream-Shuttle, begins with hearing the voices of ancient nomads and a desire to rejoin their dance, not by moving their feet but their knees, around a fire started by pine tarred wood from which: [s]ometimes the black tar / sky descends on me / and I wish to burn again. This sets the stage for a journey through lives, histories, and exiles, the volume coming to an end with the title poem:
the room into a coma
where you hear
the living talk about you dead
Quite a few titles serve as the opening line of poems, such as in "High Noon," which continues with a palpable image of the midday sun:
drunk on spices
crying for sunset,
swings the watch-chain
of its gold tail
across the sky
This poetic device, not merely a matter of economy (à condenser, as Pound would say), adds suspense, which Gelland invokes often, including the opening poem, "Voices."
Overall, these are small poems, most barely a page in length. Some seem storybook or fairy-tale like: wind blowing a curtain appears as if a dragon; a keeper of peacocks who consumes their rainbows; and this complete poem:
An Empty Cage
sings in the wind
to capture it
to the song.
As she does in her first book, Gelland continues to juxtapose language for mind-bending imagery:
You fly in the air of a smile
light follows your feet
a lake full of springs
that laugh in your brain
And from the surreal poem "The Light in Other People's Faces," where "meaning" has "aromas" and experiences a type of exile or execution illustrated by an allusion to Lear, whose final mood is discerned only by contemplating in which key he cried: [d]id Lear howl in C# / or B-flat major? / Recall nothing but the key.
Gelland once curated a small art gallery, and her fondness for art is evident in this volume too. There's an ekphrastic poem based on a work by abstract expressionist de Kooning in the poem, "Late Landscape: DeKooning," one inspired by a painting by late Gothic painter Stefan Lochner, "Im Rosenhag," and another in two voices, one of which is the French artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died in WWII at the age of 23. That's quite a range of artistic styles, and I have a feeling that Gelland can no doubt talk at length about each one.
A number of poems are dedicated to friends, editors, and fellow poets. This sense of community seems important to Gelland, who lost her husband and fellow poet Kenneth Frost three years ago. In "Autumn," a poem dedicated to Mary Denise Cancellare, the narrator remembers "that year" when she saw the leaves begin to turn color: "people's laughter seemed to grieve me," yet hidden away, the "breath-bearing light spoke within me," and:
… when radiance came,
sower of solitude,
the mouth of my heart gasped.
—Ellen Jane Powers
Tales of the François Vase by Julia Older (Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2012), 72 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9845921-2-8. $20.00
Imagine, if you were to inhabit this world for two and a half millennia, what you might witness and experience! In her book of poems, which includes a CD of the NPR radio play adaptation, Julia Older writes a variety of voices to dramatize the "birth" and life of a famed museum piece. The François Vase bears the names of the potter, Ergotimos, who made her, and Kleitias, the painter who decorated her exterior. The pair are portrayed as doting parents:
The birth of beauty always feels like pleasure.
Should it not? Especially in Ceramicus
where we potters slip imagination
in red clay subdued by yellow buff,
engraving the lives of gods strip by strip
so if unwound the frieze could fill a wall.
That's how we spin the earth, Kleitias and I.
This vase, ancient Greek wedding bowl, or krater, is a large terracotta centerpiece in which concentrated wine is diluted with water before being served to guests. In the opening poem, the vase sings an ode to celebrate her contents, as heady now as 25 centuries ago:
Dionysus, god of wine
trips, grips a chartreuse vine.
The clusters pop, the bruised
flesh. The blood, the juice
of water-woven tangled mesh,
thrush and plash. The musty pull
of pungent silhouetted globes
so full and bronze and
sweet sun spill—the rape of grape . . .
After a mere human lifetime, the vase departs Greece on her own odyssey across the Adriatic Sea to Etruria, where she contains blood and warm sheep livers for a professional diviner, or haruspex, and, for a short time, serves as hiding place for a newborn baby. A few centuries later, from the depths of a ransacked Etruscan tomb, she muses:
I wonder who pissed in me?
The Roman soldier, or a Christian martyr
hiding in the tomb?
Their urine smells the same.
Either way, unrepentant Christian prisoners have found themselves incarcerated impossibly, tauntingly, together with the vase's flauntings of false gods and idols and, as one martyr explains:
It leered from pagan pottery
and with the wrath of God some
of us took up the false gods and cast them down—away
. . .
Sweet are the fruits of Christian martyrdom.
And so, as the vase takes up the tale again:
For centuries I lay broken
in hundreds of pieces
unable to move
except when an earthquake
or river breached the tomb.
The troubadours sang their lays.
Men marched to the Crusades
and I? I waited long Dark Ages
without unity or glaze—
Alessandro François and a thief make their 1844 entrances and explain the fervor with which François excavates and tracks down the bits of vase and pieces it all together—except for one stolen shard. The poetry continues, narrating witness of another two smashings and putting togethers in the life of the vase until at last she is set down quiet, complete, and secure from everything:
but the light which is boundless.
It streams inside as into a well
and helps me decide
what stories to tell.
And there are stories aplenty for anyone who wishes to visit her Florentine museum and study Kleitias' artwork. Five bands of pictures depicting dozens of scenes and hundreds of figures from Homer's Iliad, some of which illustrate the book.
To Bed, To Bed
Bedding Vows: Love Poems from Outback Maine by Patricia Smith Ranzoni. (Unity, ME: North Country Press, 2013), hardbound, 105 pages. ISBN: 978-0945980-47-6. $20.00.
In a world of sound bites, "complexity" is the single word to describe Patricia Smith Ranzoni's Bedding Vows. The universe they document is intimate and profoundly outside of the self, melding the immediacy of carnal love with a deep history of place-reverence. From "Late":
Safe with my
love in this relief
I think how we grown
from this glacier-gouged clay
have been cut so deep.
How living by rock
and petrified us
to hurt. How line by line
deed by deed
here we sleep or don't
in one hard bed
the nearer our ends
the more or less we cry.
Ranzoni's ninth book continues the documentary tradition she has established, detailing the art-making and work histories of Maine's people, including her Native and European ancestors, and exploring how those histories interact with the state's diverse ecosystems. The current volume adds a rich layer of inquiry into the nature of marriage. In these poems, bodies become places ready for archaeological investigation. From "Husband Cut My Hair":
and weave your fingers through these threads of me husband
if you have loved it slip again into my waves and let me be your rings.
Show it as it has shown you. Dip again into its flow is it fabric
or water it doesn't know itself or what it means.
Ranzoni extends her musings from the nature of her own marriage to marriage as a cultural unifier, remarking in "Mixed-Heart Maine" on the similarity of Scots and American Indian marriage ceremonies "as if the same / country because the same continent once split in two." Also from "Mixed-Heart Maine":
. . . the water you became together,
the other shore you reached with its standing people applauding,
the eagles we all willed to be ancestors.
Ranzoni describes herself as "unschooled in poetry," although she is clearly familiar with poets of her generation. Indeed, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Ruth Moore, E.B. White, and even Allen Ginsberg show up in "Making Maybaskets" as the retrospective speaker addresses her earlier self:
You don't know Robert Lowell is learning sailing
and kissing a few miles downriver summers
you don't know about, classic summers Elizabeth Bishop
names it in North Haven poems
If Ranzoni is "unschooled," she is certainly not "unread," and perhaps this conflict fuels some of her work. In the same poem, readers may also find a bit of the storied Maine distrust of those from "away," the resentment of colonized people whose culture has been appropriated:
But doesn't Lowell make your mother's
people's cemetery and our skunks famous (not the other way around
the way your father's people wore skunkoil against the croup)
seeing his own moonstruck eyes in theirs confessing his own
wild taste for cultured trash? How Hancock County serves
his genius these days freeing him to loosen and swivel his
aesthetics no less . . .
Some readers may find Ranzoni's style excessively, perhaps even artificially folksy, with its often rambling, conversational style and seemingly random line breaks. But the book also contains poems that are tightly crafted. In several cases, these poems arise from another of the poet's recurring themes: the severance of a long-time marriage by the death of one partner. The title poem, "Bedding Vows," is concerned with this situation, as is the elegant shorter poem, "By the Sound":
Hark to them, the long paired,
when they break the still
which can be peace, or instinct and fear.