Review by Barbara Blatner
by Sandra Kohler
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2011, 114 pp., $20.00
A few months ago, poet Sandra Kohler, a friend of a friend, published on your pages a penetrating review of my verse memoir about my mother’s death, The Still Position. When she asked me to consider writing a review for her new poetry book, Improbable Music, I consented. Being as I am fascinated by consciousness, how it lives in me, harmonizes and clashes with my perceptions, how I long as a poet to make sense and use of it, I figured that I would find a kinship of sorts in Kohler’s Improbable Music. In poem after poem, Kohler skillfully binds together nature’s land with territories of self-apprehension. Reading her work, I ask myself, “Where do I exist at this particular moment in space and time; where do my perceptions place me?”
Here are what feel to me like signature lines in Kohler’s poem “Out”:
The clarity of the predawn sky. The moon’s
skinny arc, gold and thin as a ring. At the horizon
greeny-rose, a rich murk. Clarity? Murk? I can’t
have it both ways.
In the poem’s first three lines above, Kohler gives us a canvas: sky, moon’s portentous “ring,” the wonderfully spondaic, contradictory “rich murk.” Upon this canvas she projects mind and heart so that I enter a moment where inner and outer worlds merge.
Is the canvas she makes with images in the above lines one of “clarity” or “murk” in her psyche’s calibration of meaning? “Clarity” and “murk,” emerging together, reveal her intimation of dualities. Letting me into her world of this-or-that, she questions her own knowing, and how it is transcribed into word choices. There is no right word when there are two true designations in her mind. I relate to the tug of her opposites; I too find contradiction in everything. “Clarity? Murk?” She can’t “have it both ways,” but she does have it both ways, by putting “it,”perception’s moment, into these two words.
And a little later in the poem, she affirms that “it’s raining lightly. It’s raining darkly. I have it/both ways”–and invites me into a deep, slant play of language.
Kohler very often balances two seemingly warring apprehensions, holding her tensions gracefully in these poems. It is these tensions that, for me, carry the lines forward, nourish their flow. Her constant return is to the natural world, to water, “the river flowing swift and cold,” to changes, to poised doubleness: “what is foreground,/what background – black on/white, white on black?” She does not resolve these tensions. She presents me with their energies.
If there if a hero in these pages, a recurring steady phenomenon that Kohler cites, a kind of correlative for her revelations, it is the heron she looks for and spies sometimes by water or in woods, the heron she names Heraclitus…
Because he doesn’t step
into the same river twice. Because I am not sure
he is the same heron.
All poems save one in “Heraclitus,” the second section of the book,contain the name “Heraclitus” in the title. I enjoyed the poet’s attraction to the heron’s “interrogative curve” as a force that leads her onward in her examinations.
In “Heraclitus and Others,” Kohler reports a sighting of six herons. The biggest, most venerable heron, she decides, is Heraclitus; the others are his family members. She doesn’t understand the clouds “bright auroral signals of some joy” that flare up in the herons’ domain, she simply presents this joy in an image. Then, quickly, like the fire and the river, emblems of the inscrutable forces she is drawn to, she moves, as she does often in this book, to thinking darkly about her family, her sister, brother, son. And although, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, she is keenly aware that “a Heraclitan fire burns through all/our days,” she cannot, does not look away from the knowledge that her “sister will fly to France/and remain unchanged, [her] brother will refuse to/give up one sip of his cup of bitterness,[her] son/will build a future using love and
I too have often had to face that change will not come where it is dearly longed for, in the distant, wounded hearts of those I most closely share time with, but that change comes nonetheless. I understand it but dimly, for it presents itself “in mysterious hieroglyphs that encrypt our own nature.” I am reminded here of Hopkins’ ecstatic, almost manic singing, reminded of his birds, his airborne incantations. I think Kohler and Hopkins share something of a fascination with
sublime elementals, polarites of time and space.
But Kohler’s rhythms, unlike Hopkins, do not leap toward sky or fire, desiring to be consumed, but stay broodingly and organically on the dark ground of her visions and preoccupations. The herons are not avatars like Hopkins’ windhover, but “muses/of absence./Praise absence.” Kohler is a lonesome poet, a wanderer. Many parts of her lonesomeness speak to me and will, I think, speak to many readers. Like all of us, she is uniquely lonesome. She is acutely aware of what
and who is absent, especially when she is writing of others, her family and friends. There is distance there, absence of understanding. What she knows are “narratives of loss, alienation,/emigration, exile, sadness”– these are her core stories. What she knows is that “the loved traveler/who returns cannot be embraced, only held/at arms’ length and gazed into, a mirror, impenetrable, remote, impossibly close.”
She is unflinching in relaying truths of human existence. The silent herons, so much themselves, her “muses of absence,” perhaps move her to hear the silences of the world. In the title poem of the section called “Writing the Wound,” she sings of exile and war and atrocity, and how we shut ourselves out of the suffering of others:
How we have
how we have sealed up
in dark chambers
under our throats
speech and hearing
cells of our inner ears.
We are bound to each other by biology–“cells of our inner ears”–by history–“passages”–by the puzzle of being human. The enormity of what we conceal in “dark chambers” is in our very throats. “What does it mean to be part of a century,” she asks, a bloody century. She writes of death camps in Europe, “rage still in Bosnia,/Northern Ireland, Palestine,/Iraq. The struggles go on in/our name.” By “our name,” I think she refers to all humans who hurt humans–and that means all of us, no matter how loudly we proclaim innocence. Human savagery is the history of centuries.
While Kohler doesn’t offer easy solutions to our killing nature, she as a poet knows that “the dark work of slaughter we cannot/stay cries out for witness.” In the phrase, “dark work of slaughter,” I read her potent inability to hope away our bloody distress. “Work” implies purpose, industry. Fate, actions taken that cannot not be taken, is an ingredient of meaning here, so that the use of the “work” in this context makes the perpetration and perpetuation of human suffering weigh as tragedy. Kohler is a fatalist and an ancient; she does not know how to put out the ravaging fire, she knows to sing about it.
In the book’s final title section, “Improbable Music,” Kohler returns from the world’s grief- stained stage to her home, finds there “something [is] bound and mute this morning, held/and withheld.” Here again are her dynamic paradoxes, tensions that forever and interestingly seem to examine themselves. “Empty and filling” are the lovers in “A Deux,” their communication mute but palpable: “Your silence. My answering silence.” This is not peace exactly, but perhaps
a moment of repose in a universe pelted by despair. Kohler’s music is improbable because, in “September Song,” she knows that “loving you was the mirage I’d subsist on.” She finds her music, and although she is wise enough to know that music itself is a mirage, it is sufficient to make her live.