July 10, 2009

Review by Alexa Mergen

MEMORY AND RAIN
by Jim Natal

Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 3537
Granada Hills, CA 91394
ISBN: 978-1-59709-136-7
2009, 101 pp., $18.95
www.redhen.org

In 101 pages, Memory and Rain carries variety in theme, form and subject that keeps a reader returning. Motifs repeat—rain, windmills, cats, rivers, trails and roads—but placed freshly with each use so as the eye and ear recognize the words, the mind perceives infinite possibilities within the familiar.

The collection’s first poem, the extended sequence “Rain in L.A.,” takes the reader through four days of downpour that trap the poet with his recollections, thoughts and random musings. Thick with allusions, the poem reveals the poet’s delight in making something of what he’s living.

We don’t need no stinking umbrellas,
no newspapers folded into sinking
upturned boats, inky runnels of hard
luck stories streaming down faces
and the backs of necks. I refuse
to believe in the afterlife of rain,
in drowned angels or Lucifers, no bibles
crumbling like soggy matchbooks.
There is no poetry in the rain….

The next section, “Picking Fruit in the Dark,” takes the reader into the poet’s memories of rain, stories, ghosts of relationships, loss and travels. Here the poet establishes himself as an honest witness. In “Filter,” he describes how the whole world changes in a moment with an insight provided by a slipped sleeve and the sight of a stranger’s wrist.

Eucalyptus trees instantly changed their scent.
Shaggy bundles of drooping leaves
suffused with oily Australian spice suddenly
reeked of cat piss then ignited into torches,
the canopy combusted by those blue numbers
exposed to oxygen and midday heat. Sixty years
just disappeared and I heard sirens in the distance.

Affection for the landscape comes through in “On Broken Top, Three Sisters Wilderness” where “every stream has a different voice” and “Lair” where “the woods were silken on those nights, the path/perfumed with rabbit and deer, trees with our markings.” Shorter poems such as “Blur,” which records the glimpse of a sign while driving a highway, and “Postcards to Tania from Joshua Tree,” notes to home, suggest the tirelessness of the poet’s engagement.

This relentless observation serves well in “Photographic Memory” and “In Memory of Her Memory.” “Photographic Memory” testifies to the power of photographs, rescued from an approaching fire or reflected upon years later, and the powerlessness of people against time. The poet is aware of the futility: “We cannot possess the past,/even in snapshot fragments./We cannot possess anything, although/we can be possessed with possessing,/or, rather, attempting to possess.”

“In Memory of Her Memory,” the final poem of Memory and Rain, gathers the poet’s skills into a heartbreaking sequence of ten parts. The poem is tender without sentimentality, powerful without aggression. The poem narrates a mother’s progression into Alzheimer’s disease, death and burial. Each poem links to the previous one with a shared word or two like sheets tied together to escape from an upper story window. So, “talk” echoes “talk” and “moved away” echoes “moves away,” inviting the reader to approach and look into this intimate room. Each section takes its own form and address. In section IV the poet makes use of an extended metaphor:

The horse that is my mother’s memory
has run away. It hasn’t gone far;
we can see it standing on the hill beside
our property, a silhouette at twilight.
I don’t know who feeds or curries it now,
or if it has gone completely feral.

In “Epilogue,” the poet addresses the deceased: “On the other side of your grave there were words/on the chairs, too many words in Hebrew transliteration/mounded too high beside the white canopy on the hill/too steep for a funeral. The shovel was too shiny/and your coffin too small and too heavy,/and the hole in the ground did not seem as deep/as the O of your mouth between sunken cheeks.”

In grief the world is too much for the poet and still he has the courage to record it against forgetting in the way the finest poets, who make beauty and truth from observations and memories, manage to do.

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Alexa Mergen is a poet in Sacramento. She can be contacted at alexamergen@yahoo.com