Review by Maryann Corbett
THIS TIME TOMORROW
by Matthew Thorburn
The Waywiser Press
Bench House, 82 London Road
Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 5FN
2013, 96 pages, $18.00
First, the confession: I’m a timid traveler, the most stubbornly stuck of sticks-in-the-mud. That timidity might underlie my distrust of grant-funded travel for the purpose of writing poems. It’s a prickly resistance I feel even while I admit that gorgeous poems can result. All this should be laid out honestly.
I didn’t know, though, when I undertook to review Matthew Thorburn’s This Time Tomorrow, that I would be fighting past those prejudices—that I’d be reviewing a book of travel poems conceived during grant-funded travels to three countries. The knowledge I did have was the sort one gains gradually by noticing where, and how often, a poet’s name keeps showing up. I first became aware of it when Thorburn’s second book, Every Possible Blue, and my first were both brought out under the auspices of WordTech in 2012. And I remembered where I had already seen both the poet’s name and the book’s. In 2010, not one but two Thorburn manuscripts had been included in the longlist for the Anthony Hecht Prize awarded by The Waywiser Press. Every Possible Blue was one; This Time Tomorrow, now brought out by Waywiser, was the other. After a wait of eight years since the publication of his first full-length book Subject to Change, Thorburn now has two new books published within a year of each other, which is, as problems go, a pleasant one to have. There were some other tidbits I gathered: for example, that Thorburn is published widely and with distinction, and that he sometimes uses form and even rhyme, my great loves, as in this sonnet at the Poetry Foundation website. Oh, and that his day-job writing is related to the law, like mine.
But I’ll be looking in Thorburn’s earlier books for those matches to my personal taste in style and subject. This Time Tomorrow is all about the journey, in both the physical and the spiritual senses. Its summary notion is right there in the book’s epigraph, from Bashō: “Even in Kyoto—/ hearing the cuckoo’s cry—/ I long for Kyoto.” And it’s in a phrase embedded in one of the book’s long poems and attributed to the late poet Liam Rector: “… every poem says the same thing:/ My heart aches.”
The book is structured in three sections: the first focuses on Iceland, the second on Japan, and the third on a kind of head trip traversing China, Japan, the poet’s native New York, and the country of memory and history. The travelers are the book’s narrator (who seems to be the poet) and Lily, who is—we assume and deduce—the narrator’s wife, and whose background is Chinese.
These are details readers have to work out gradually, plunked down as we are at first, in “The Falcon House,” in mid-trip in Iceland—yet also somehow in the aftermath of the trip:
… This was before talk
of joining the euro. Before
Icelanders started blowing up
Land Rovers—don’t worry, I mean
their own Land Rovers—
for the insurance payday. One afternoon
in The Three Overcoats, we sat under
Gogol’s boyish portrait. Of course
everything’s different now. Years
gone by. That painting’s probably
been sold. No, that’s not right either—
The temporal backing-and-forthing are typical of conversational storytelling, but they also set us firmly in the book’s mood of uncertainty. The plain-spoken diction is characteristic of the Iceland section, as if the traveler were trying to keep a low profile. An inventive verb, as when seagulls “hitchcock/ around Lake Tjörnin,” stands out from the usual level. Characteristic, too, is the use of couplets and tercets not based on rhyme pattern or syntax, placed simply to slow and aerate the telling. Idea rather than sound is foremost here: one demonstration of how page-based the poems are is “The Trick with the Stick,” which uses almost concrete-poetic features of page and print to illustrate the motion and confusion of an arctic tern assault—features that would be challenging if not impossible to get across with just the spoken word.
Throughout the book, place names, geographical features, human foibles, and local food are the exotica that grab us and keep us reading, rather than striking uses of sonics or prosody:
Hard to imagine Bashō
died here in a rented room above a flower shop
in 1694, as I pause today
on Dotonbori Street, shoppers brushing past
on either side, to gaze
at the giant red mechanical crab
stretching its legs over the door
of the Kani Doraku seafood
restaurant, its eye stalks rotating in a breeze
too high for me to feel.
—“A Field of Dry Grass”
It’s a poetry of narration, sudden incongruities, and games of association, rather than of music or technical flash. An occasional internal rhyme appears; the roughly similar line lengths and numbers of stresses in poems like “Little Thieves” and “A Year in Kyoto” are as close as we get to meter. More often, there are interesting games played with line breaks and interstanzaic enjambments, and with repetitions in which meaning is made to shift, as it does here in “A Year in Kyoto”:
Gloria again, back at
the bar, somewhere
between past and present.
Or here in “The Falcon House”:
… So it’s the cold tap you turn
and wait on to get cold
not the hot to get hot. Got it? He had it
Or here in “Something to Declare”:
… But the young monk can’t let go.
He follows her into the world, gives up everything
he has to have her. He has to have her.
The jump-cut is the book’s most dependable device. The habit of moving in and out of the present narrative, to some associated thought or some earlier event, is a good tool for insinuating the traveler’s permanent sense of unease. The long poem “Something to Declare” is especially virtuosic in its jumps from an actual Chinese tourist destination, to an imagined tale of an old and a young monk, to conversations with poets and restaurants in Matanwan, to Count Basie playing in a bar, to the poet finally crossing Hudson Street in New York “to get on with the rest of my life.” Particularly in the book’s first and third sections, this is a poetry that does much of its work by ambush, the point of which is to keep a reader feeling like an outsider, a foreigner, a nonnative even of his own thoughts. No first impression is really to be trusted here:
Ash fell all night on the houses like snow,
I wrote, but with too fine a brush, like a cook
who turns away from the stove to wipe
his hands and catches some stray thought
(Mmm, paprika?) drifting across his clear mind.
Not ash, but tephra—soot, cinders, and grit …
—“Facts About Islands”
Thorburn especially likes to bring the reader up short with a shift of view from the exotic to the mundane, as in the ending of “How We Found Our Way,” or as he does here:
my last chance to see it
I see it—
Mount Fuji in the rain
no, that’s a billboard of Fuji
it disappears in the rain
That unaccomplished vision of Fuji, and the melancholy of knowing that nothing turns out quite as expected, are at the book’s emotional core, the spot where “my heart aches.”
The excerpt just above also demonstrates the one deep, decorous bow that the book makes in the direction of form: its middle section, “Disappears in the Rain” is constructed of short-lined couplets and tercets that suggest Japanese haiku and renga. They focus on single, tight images and are minimalist about such Western concerns as caps and punctuation. Their concentration and concision make this section the strongest one, for my money, and produce delightful metaphors like “the shikansen’s silver streak/ zips the sky to the ground.”
It’s an approach that feels very true to the pointillist nature of memory, to the way it records—unpredictably, unreliably—the merest crumbs of experience.
And the crumbs of beauty simply float past, never dwelt upon. “This is,” says Thorburn, “the built-in sadness of travel: you can’t stay here” no matter how you love it, and no matter how clearly you realize that your first understanding was flawed. From the book’s beginning, in the knowledge that the travelers’ ideas of Iceland were “all wrong,” to its end atop Mount Misen, where the promised view is “lost to us” and the travelers ask “Are we even here?” Thorburn’s poems ask basic questions about the encounter with the world and what it means. For me, the stick-in-the-mud distruster of travel, these travel poems have the right idea.
Maryann Corbett’s first full-length collection of poems, Breath Control, was published in 2012 by David Robert Books and was featured on the First Books Panel that year at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Her second book, Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, was a finalist for the Able Muse Book Prize and was released in 2013. Her poetry has received the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, PN Review (UK), and Modern Poetry in Translation (UK) and is forthcoming in Barrow Street and Southwest Review, among others. Maryann lives in Saint Paul and works for the Minnesota Legislature.
Review by Ann Fisher-Wirth
DOOR OF THIN SKINS
by Shira Dentz
6 Horizon Road, #2901
Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024
2013, 96 pp., $16.00
My father died slowly of brain cancer when I was fifteen. For years, I was numb to his death; there was much I did not connect with, could barely remember. I had no sense of how great my loss was until one day when I was twenty-two, writing in my journal about someone else entirely, I wrote, “That night, X said, was when the world broke for him.” Then I wrote, “It broke for me the night my father died”—and I could not stop crying for the next eight hours. The catharsis led me to therapy and to a process of mourning and healing that took many, many years.
For a long time, I would have been easy prey for any older man who made me feel cherished and taken care of—who made me feel fathered. It would not have been difficult really to mess me up. Luckily, the therapists and professors I had treated me honorably; they listened to me, evaluated my work, extended respect and friendship to me without laying their own trips on me, without sexual vibes or entanglements.
It is therefore with special rage that I read Shira Dentz’s book of poems Door of Thin Skins, a harrowing account of sexual and psychological abuse by a highly regarded analyst against the young female poet who is his patient. “Dr. Abe,” as he is called, is a whale of a man with a New York penthouse apartment/office, powerful splayed fingers that seem “to cover everything; above and below,” and “brown, jelly bean orthopedic” shoes. He is full of a sense of his own importance, a “60-year-old therapist, President of the psychoanalytic division of the A.P.A., and the Society of clinical psychologists in his home state, and a postdoctoral psychoanalytic program.” At the beginning of her treatment, the patient is 21 and wants “to look androgynous, stuff my femaleness out of sight.” Apparently she has been sexually approached by her father—to which Dr. Abe’s response is:
I’ve had patients whose fathers were very seductive; they’d sit in
their father’s laps and he’d tell them about his affairs; I wonder why you didn’t enjoy your father’s advances
And she has lost a younger brother from disease. Her treatment lasts for years, during which Dr. Abe decides she needs the “personal” approach. He takes her shopping, showers while she washes his dishes, offers her purses his wife and daughter don’t want, and keeps telling her she ought to sleep with one man or another. Just one episode of many:
Evening, and Dr. Abe calls. Says, I’m lonely and thought: Who should I call? I thought, you! do you want to keep me company, maybe watch TV? My head fills like a balloon, at the same time a heavy dock. I dart over (live at the Y just blocks away). Wind up in the usual: Him in his large recliner, me in his lap crying, him fondling my breasts. Afterwards, we ride the elevator down to the underground garage and he drops me at my corner on his drive home.
His excuse for his appalling transgression of boundaries: “You need a boyfriend. If you had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t be doing any of this!”
After years this therapy fails—no surprise—and she transfers to another therapist to whom she tells “thesexualstuffthathappened.” Later still, she gathers the courage to lodge a complaint, and eventually a settlement is reached, a settlement that says everything about the powerlessness of this young, damaged female patient vis-à-vis the medical establishment: Because Dr. Abe might have “another heart attack,” the case is delayed six years, until the prosecutor, who needs to close the case, settles without her consent for Dr. Abe’s admission of “one charge of negligence—in termination” and the withdrawal of “all other charges of professional misconduct.”
The brilliance of Door of Thin Skins lies not only in the narrative, but also in the way Shira Dentz stretches and fractures language, not just to report on damage, but to enact damage, trauma and the mind’s desperate attempt to become, then remain, truthful and clear. Words and sentences are broken, obsessively repeated, morphed, made shadowy, made wispy. Words, like things, stand on their heads. At two points language trails off in a scribble, as if all the poet could do, stymied, tongue-stalled, was draw on the page. “History … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” says Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist. To awake, in Door of Thin Skins, would entail being able to make sense of the tangle of desire, deceit, sincerity, hypocrisy, the pressures of the past and the distortions of memory—and the likelihood of that is trenchantly brought home in a series of pages in the latter half of the book, anatomizing
Or, two pages later,
sSensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensense sens nse ns ne nse e n ∞
The cover of Door of Thin Skins depicts a spider’s web made of words. Thinking of Dr. Abe and the seductive power he wields, I’m reminded of these cynical lines by the Rolling Stones: “I said my, my, like the spider to the fly/ Jump right ahead in my web.”
Each time, reading the book, I’m left with admiration and anger—but also with great sorrow for the troubled young woman who seeks healing, but gets tangled up instead in the sticky snarl of a therapist’s ego. “Your life will be different now that I’m in it,” Dr. Abe promises his patient early on, and it seems like a promise of nurturance. He surely does make her life different, though not as she might have dreamed. Therein the patient must minister to herself. Shira Dentz repeats Dr. Abe’s line on the book’s final page, and continues,
Always to taste those words.
His voice my wind while I wait for time.
Later, in my report, A dam broke in me.
End while I wait for time.
Ann Fisher-Wirth‘s books include Dream Cabinet, Carta Marina, and the coedited The Ecopoetry Anthology. She teaches at the University of Mississippi and also in the Chatham University Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.
Review by Sarah Vogelsong
WHAT IS HEARD
by Rachel Adams
Red Bird Chapbooks
N3105 Elm Lane
Pepin, WI 54759
2013, 26 pp., $10
For reasons of tone or subject, some poems seem attached to seasons, and Rachel Adams’ inaugural collection of poetry What Is Heard (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013), although published in midsummer, to me finds its greatest resonance in fall, the season of putting in order and taking account. In this slim volume, comprising thirteen poems, individuals have turned their thoughts from life’s momentous events to the more meditative duties and pleasures. By the time we read of their lives, the people to whom Adams gives voice are past falling in love; they are negotiating the end of their relationships. They are not buying houses and beginning anew; they are rebuilding and patching together the seams of the old. They are not balanced at the peak of crisis; they are coming to terms with the world in its aftermath.
I have known Adams since we worked together as editors in Washington, DC, and so I had seen a few of these poems over the years as they were published in various literary magazines. But although each still packs a punch when it stands alone, the whole in this case really is more than the sum of its parts because of the thematic coherence of the collection. What most struck me in reading What Is Heard is how much a chapbook can be like a concept album, with each element building on the last, links appearing between the different poems, and the complete set gaining much more force because the author has allowed the reader to look at a single question or subject from so many different angles and in so many different lights.
Adams sets the tone of the collection from the get-go: there is nothing sparse about these poems or the world they describe; instead, they overflow with detail, with symbols and signifiers that harken back to other times, people not present, places that only exist in traces. The landscape for her is no “scraped raw” West, but her native East, “heavy and damp,” swollen with the aftereffects of storms that have already passed through.
The opening poem “What You Bring Along” orients the reader to what is to come, not only bringing us back to the East with its layers of accumulated history but directing us away from the highways that figure so prominently in American writing. Adams is looking for something more subtle and organic: “somewhere, south of your intended route,/ … a trail bordering a reservoir.”
Trails wind throughout almost every poem of What Is Heard, tracing a path between the destination sought and the memories that continually pull the traveler back into the past. But although physical markers—the “blue paint-blazes on the trees” of “The Movement”—are littered along these trails, the real debris are not objects, but words, “what is heard,” or, more often than not, “what has been heard.”
So it is that in “The Movement,” one of the strongest poems of the collection, what the narrators encounter at the conclusion of the trail is a cabin with
ballpoint-pen diatribes, and expletives,
and the record book hanging on a nail,
brittle and teeming with little histories.
No matter how much a burden words may be—and the words of “The Movement” are full of pain (they are “brittle,” “diatribes,” “expletives”)—for Adams, words are most fundamentally affirmations of meaning, the illustration of shared memories formed over time.
Consequently, what drives this poem (and, to a large extent, the collection) is the tension that arises between these words that are “everywhere” and the silence that threatens to snuff them out in “a stifling that is subtle.” “The Movement” is full of words that have been heard, but it takes place before new words can be spoken; it ends on the long breath someone takes prior to saying things they do not wish to say.
In this way, words and trails overlap throughout What Is Heard: trails are lined with words and words create long trails of meaning. The fear that creeps through the poems at times is that the trails will eventually end, the words disappear into silence. Nowhere is this fear better expressed than in “Catoctin Mountain Traversal,” at the dense heart of the book, where “the past comes folding in” so close that it penetrates and is absorbed into “the buried time I hold inside my coat.” Here the trail leads nowhere: it “spirals out” but arrives only at a “flat and vacant peak,” becoming at the last moment not a trail, but the closed, burnt-out rings of a cut tree.
This fear of absence, silence, nothingness returns three poems later in the intensely personal “Kinetic,” a work that describes Adams’ own experience undergoing heart surgery in her thirties. But although there is a bleakness to this poem (“What a thing it is to be incapacitated,” the second stanza begins), there is also the sense that all is not lost. The sterility of the first stanza—“mechanized,” “sanitized,” “automatic”—is overcome in the second by the tenacious confirmation of being “alive,” even if “only for minutes here and there.” The struggle is being able to sense (to hear) but not to speak.
The poem from which the chapbook draws its title, “Harvey Mountain Sound Walk,” is one of the clearest expressions of what drives Adams’ work forward. Based on her time at an arts colony in the Taconics, the act of hearing is elevated from a passive absorption of unfolding time to the poet’s active decision to engage, uncover, and catalogue. “We note, like fastidious scientists, what is heard,” Adams writes, and that is, first of all, “one’s own footsteps.” From that recognition of the self, she expands outward to the cicada, the airplane, and the bluejay, the observations accumulating one on top of the other. Even when darkness falls, nothing is lost or erased: “Harvey Mountain will store up its sounds,/ hibernating, rolling them into itself.” The act is similar to the folding in of “Catoctin Mountain Traversal,” but in meaning totally different: in the Catoctins, the trail collapses inward to create a kind of black hole where meaning is annihilated, whereas on Harvey Mountain, the trail becomes part of the flux of life that feeds poetry.
The Taconics return once more before the end of the chapbook in “Northerly,” another love poem that, like “The Movement,” is marked by foreboding. Here “what is heard” takes on a rawer edge, becoming almost a question: “Tell me the sound,” Adams writes in the first stanza, and for a moment, love and poetry seem to become one. “Tell me the sound—/ … of memory, of folding-out road,/ of possibility.”
But having brought us to this brink, she sends us crashing down at the opening of the second stanza with a line from Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”: “I had a thought for no one’s but your ears.” She leaves unsaid Yeats’ next lines: “it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown/ As weary-hearted as that hollow moon,” but that unsettling emptiness still permeates the rest of the stanza, encapsulated in the “heavy press of a palm” that brings the poem to its conclusion. The reader knows immediately that something is wrong, that the trail has gone crooked and “the words that warmed us so” will ultimately be brought to silence again.
These are dense poems, although they read easily. Like the hiker who gets caught up in the beauty of a trail without discerning any of the details of flora and fauna around him, it’s easy for a reader to be lulled by the smoothness of Adams’ rhythms and the loveliness of her language. But a more careful reader, or someone who returns to these poems again and again, will begin to see the links between each piece and to unearth the “stories in the ground,/ in the low layers.”
Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, VA. Her work has appeared in Style Weekly, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and The Neworld Review. (sarahvogelsong.com)
Review by Michael Meyerhofer
IF I FALTER AT THE GALLOWS
by Edward Mullany
Publishing Genius Press
2301 Avalon Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21217
2011, 84 pp., $13.25
As a poet, editor, and generally over-opinionated loudmouth, part of my soapbox issue is that many experimental poets seem to be experimental just for the sake of being unconventional and pseudo-provocative—in other words, their poetry is innovative but gutless. Not so with Mullany’s If I Falter at the Gallows. These poems are stylistically unique, mostly short (often just a few lines) with an obvious stream-of-consciousness vibe to them, but what really makes them leap off the page is their underlying tenderness, their unabashed examination of the human condition that reminds me of those famous Chinese poets, Li Po and Tu Fu. There are echoes of William Carlos Williams and James Wright here, too, especially in the following, short poem:
In Praise of Narrative Poetry
Into the bleak
lake on the estate
on which no
one resides, falls
At the same time, these poems are distinctly postmodern, almost always favoring brief, lyrical snapshots over richly textured storytelling. For instance, consider the following, two-line poem in which the title (“The Horse that Drew the Cart that Carried the Condemned Man to the Gallows”) serves as a de facto opening line: “lived for a while longer/ and then died.”
The risk of such a poem is obvious; however, for me, the brevity serves to do an end-run around my natural contempt for blanket statements about mortality by focusing not on the condemned man (referenced only in the title), but the equally mortal beast-of-burden whose survival was simply a stay of execution. In that, it somewhat reminds me of “By Their Works,” a Bob Hicok poem in which Hicok tells the story of the Last Supper by focusing not on the central characters, but on the perspective of a waitress.
While a potential criticism of such short poems is that their ambition is overshadowed by gimmick, that would be missing an additional element that adds tension to Mullany’s work: the element of surprise. Often, that surprise resonates with social commentary that, exactly because of his poems’ blindsiding brevity, has an additional haunting quality. Consider the following five-line poem, New Light:
The sun is hardly
the fields at the edge of the city
when the city
Usually in poetry workshops, I find myself telling my students over and over again to be specific. What beer did you drink? What movie were you watching? What city were you in when a lover broke up with you over text message? In the case of this poem, though, the lack of background detail—especially when coupled with the points earned by the gentle pacing and pastoral beauty of the opening lines—frees my mind to imagine everything from literal atrocities (such as the atomic bombings of World War II) to more generalized, post-Cuban-Missile-Crisis, Hollywood-inspired fears engraved in our collective subconscious.
As I said, though, Mullany’s poems aren’t simply clever; while his poems are far from confessional, what really drives them is their underlying humanity. Take this short example, “No Children”:
When I come back
as a ghost, and try
to tell you all the things
for which I’m sorry,
you will hear nothing
but the sounds of the dryer,
which doesn’t mean
you’re not listening.
This playful but distinctly metaphysical poem reminds me of Hemingway’s oft-referenced Iceberg Theory in that its sparse details hint at a rich and tragic backstory, despite the fact that the poem also has echoes of dark humor that help carve it into the subconscious for further analysis.
Put another way, many of these poems remind me of Zen koans in that they short-circuit the brain in the best possible way. For instance, I feel like I get the following poem, even though I couldn’t explain it to you for a million bucks (except maybe to say that it has something to do with opposites and contrasts and the tension created between life and death):
The Entombment of Christ
Assume a black
dot on a white
wall and a white
dot on a black
wall are facing
Probably my favorite poem from this whole book, though, is “The Not So Simple Truth,” which manages to be unabashedly philosophical precisely because it draws its energy not from rote philosophical statements, but tactile, gentle imagery culminating in a musical, final turn:
Potatoes. Dirt and
water. And a soft
towel left for us while
we shower. These
things are no
truer for their
plainness than peas
or pus or leprosy.
Despite the fact that virtually all the poems in this book are crafted with an extreme economy of language, the book itself still feels as broad in style as it does in subject matter. Again, these aren’t confessional poems, nor do they make much use of narrative, but their raw lyricism, twists, and humor speak to a deep intellect bolstered by innovation and, above all, a quiet sense of compassion.
Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also published five chapbooks and is the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review. (troublewithhammers.com)
Review by Robin H. Lysne
EVERY SEED OF THE POMEGRANATE
by David Sullivan
P.O. Box 7887
Huntington Beach, CA 92615-7887
2012, 118 pp., $16.00
David Allen Sullivan’s new book, Every Seed of the Pomegranate, uncovers the war in Iraq like a wound needing air to heal. We are taken into the conflict through haiku-like stanzas, the form steadying the reader in a rhythm of walking through events such as Abu Ghraib through soldiers’ eyes, through prisoners’ eyes, and through the eyes of angels and other unseen forces giving comfort to the wounded and dying. This is a brave move on Sullivan’s part, as he is willing to encompass other realms besides this well-trodden one that we live in. The voices are further clarified by the layout of the book which Sullivan divides into three formats: left for the American voices, the center for the Angels and otherworldly voices, and right for the Iraqi voices. This action of dividing the voices fascinated me: He did not favor the American voices being on the “right” and the Iraqi voices being on the “left” as one might expect. This is shrewd move on his part, as he is challenging the “rightness” of the American voice and perspective, though subtly, throughout the book. To me, as an author who has written books on ritual, it almost seems a ritual move. He is declaring the equality of the Iraqi voice by offering it on the right, the direction of making or creating, binding or sending of energy. The left is the direction of undoing, unmaking, or releasing.
But as much as Seeds of the Pomegranate engages the Iraq war, it does not just note the horrors of war and its consequences; it also holds it in question. This war clearly haunts Sullivan. In the first poem he writes:
Someone draws circles
on my back inside my dreams
that keep widening.
Who am I to write
these words? Who are you to turn
from these words and rest?
He challenges the reader to take in these accounts as part of a greater global community, but he is also questioning his own justification for being haunted by the war and its images as a man who has not fought himself. As a woman, I have questioned the same thing in my anti-war philosophy and activism. When soldiers returned from Vietnam, I was in college, and while I was compassionate towards them, I found myself realizing that these fellow students had such a horrible experience that they could not discuss it, even when asked to do so with sincere interest. One roommate who had fallen in love with a soldier who had been in a prisoner of war camp for seven years found herself at a loss for what to do with him as he woke night after night in terror. She and I were both left feeling as though our voices on the matter were woefully uninformed and lacked any real context for their experience. As he discusses in the introduction, Sullivan worked through this “odd person out” feeling by talking with those vets and finally becoming encouraged.
He weaves the book title around and around. Using the Middle Eastern fruit as a symbol, the pomegranate in this book comes from an old Arabic saying: “Every seed of the pomegranate must be eaten/ since you can’t tell which come from Paradise.” A reporter says later in the same poem:
… and placing them on
outstretched tongues one by one—
ritual that fed
us like a blessing.
I bit the liquid jewel,
sorrows broke open.
The poet’s compassion for both sides of the conflict comes thundering through, as this poem fragment illustrates.
Sullivan uses interviews of many of those who fought and reported on the war. In one poem he quotes a general: “If the public saw// images like that/ they wouldn’t tolerate it;/ there’d be no more wars.” Well-researched with interviews, news articles, and first person accounts, Sullivan takes his imagination into the war to speak from the perspectives of both the dead and the living. He engages the women’s voices as well as the men’s: “My prayers are bent back/ on themselves. What good comes from/ tearing up our lives?” As women are often left out of the conversation of war, it is a good thing that he brings their voices in.
In “The Black Camel,” he intertwines the voices of two soldiers and the angel of death, Azrael, who says: “Don’t cling to one form;/ water continues to flow/ after the pot breaks …” Clearly this is a Rumi reference: “… falling up into the bowl of sky./ The bowl breaks/ Everywhere is falling everywhere// Nothing else to do.” (Illuminated Rumi, p. 62) The voices of the angels have a Rumi-esque quality that feels haunting and convincing. It is a perfect nod to the long poetic tradition that the Middle East has brought to the world. As a professional medium, intuitive, and Energy Medicine practitioner who deals with grief and supports others in reconnecting with loved ones on a regular basis, I found his angel references to be extremely accurate in their neutrality and unconditionally loving tone. His centering of the angel voices reinforces the idea that all people are equal in death, and all can access the angelic realms no matter their religious orientation. Even with Azrael’s voice as the angel of death—who I have, gratefully, not yet met—Sullivan sets the right tone for Azrael’s compassion.
These poems speak of pain, but they also are a means to healing. They go in and through and under the questions that were fought in the media. Engaging with others who have lived through it, his students at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California, who were vets, as well as veteran Brian Turner who encouraged Sullivan to keep writing, Sullivan definitely joins the conversation of “why war,” especially the Iraq war. These poems are healing for those who lived it, and engaging enough for those who didn’t, to give one pause to really ask the question of why we fight wars at all.
Author, Artist and Energy Medicine Practitioner, Robin H. Lysne has three books published: Dancing Up the Moon: A Woman’s Guide to Creating Traditions that Bring Sacredness to Daily Life; Sacred Living (both by Conari Press); and Heart Path: Learning to Love Yourself and Listening to Your Guides (Blue Bone Books). and several more in the works. Her next publication, Poems for the Lost Deer has been picked up by Finishing Line Press. She has an MFA from Mills College and a PhD in Energy Medicine from the University of Natural Medicine in Santa Fe, NM.