July 30, 2011

Review by Beth Browne

SACRED GRAFFITI
by Florence Weinberger

Tebot Bach
Box 7887
Huntington Beach, CA 92615-7887
ISBN 978-1-8936706-0-0
2010, 77pp., $15.00
www.tebotbach.org

In one of those small world coincidences that pepper my life, I first learned of Malibu poet Florence Weinberger when she entered one of the North Carolina Poetry Society contests I was administering. She had learned about our Caldwell Nixon Jr. Award (poems by adults written for children) from one of our previous judges when I suggested she promote it for us among her students and colleagues.

For a poet I learned about from one of her poems for children, I was expecting much lighter fare. Instead, I found this deeply fulfilling and engaging book full of resonant and profound poems. Each one is like a rich gem, leaving the reader satisfied but ready for more. The book is divided into five sections introduced by a quote.

The first section revolves around the theme of art and is introduced by this thought-provoking quote by novelist George Sand:

Art for the sake of the true, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.

From filmmaking to poetry, these poems reverberate with insight into various art forms, artists and life itself. The title poem, “Sacred Graffiti,” referencing painter Mark Rothko, is contained in this section and concludes with these haunting lines:

When some men brood and grow bitter, their tainted truths bleed
sorrow’s flowers. We must love them so hard, we grow calm.
O, smudged and smoking heart.

With a foray into the worlds of sculpture and music, there are also several poems about poets and poetry, my personal favorite being the more intimate “Out of Words,” recounting Weinberger’s experience writing poetry.

I used to finish a poem and have words left over
that I could eat the next day, cold, or recover

enough to brew a distillate, to which I’d add hunger,
the sting of single syllables, a pinch of rigor…

The section concludes with an evocative poem on the theme of cave painting called “The Birth of Art.”

The second section is introduced by a quote from the eighteenth century English author, Samuel Johnson:

The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.

Starting with a hitchhiker and taking us on a journey from China to Texas with stops in North Korea, Europe and Andalusia, this section is far-flung and colorful. One of my favorites is “The North Korean Bride:”

She believes god
made her a woman,
clever with bones
so she might live.

Taught her to turn them
into savory soup,
adding little more
than vapor and spice.

Taught her to turn
the bones of her body
into dollars, pay a broker
to slip her into China.

The concluding poem, “Texas Synchronicity,” was inspired by Weinberger’s visit to a museum in Texas. The poem takes the reader many unexpected places, including this:

De Kooning went right on painting
after he’d lost his mind,
which doesn’t explain my presence in
Dallas, or why I looked down
Dealey Plaza, trying to guess
the distance from the window
to the back of Kennedy’s head.

Part Three is a surprisingly personal section, beginning with an intriguing quote from Victor Hugo, of all people:

No one ever keeps a secret so well as a child.

The poems in this section are very personal with references to Weinberger’s childhood, World War II and both her mother and father. This section also contains my favorite poem of the collection: an unforgettable little thing titled, “Pots,” which a friend, upon my reading it to her, said gave her chills. The poem seems the opposite of many of the poems in the collection in that it takes a very simple thing and makes it reflect the most complicated of emotions. The other poems do the opposite very successfully. They take something very complicated–“Hebrew sorrow,” “Agapanthus, Jacaranda, Bougainvillea,” “A Present I Didn’t Know I Wanted”–and distill them into something simple, wistful and poignant, their very essence. This is the particular genius of Weinberger’s work in this book and possibly the goal of any serious poet.

In addition, Weinberger exhibits particular skill with words, no excess, no misstep, just the precise word to evoke the exact tone and feeling she wants to convey. Whether she’s talking about her father “fingering” a cigarette, or the “purple umbrels of agapanthus,” the reader is instantly delivered to the exact image of what Weinberger is trying to impart. The poems are not full of unnecessary or overwrought words, but she has a knack for producing an unusual word, perfect for her purpose. I’m sure Weinberger took particular care in the arrangement of this book, with the heaviest, deepest section in the middle, easing out of it with the following section, prefaced by this quote from Henry James:

Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.

But the transition is not abrupt. Weinberger seems to sense the reader’s need to be brought up gently, so the section starts with the melancholy musing on a butterfly trapped under the eaves, not dire and savage, but slightly sad, with a hint of hope. Easing along with poems about thirty-six cents and humming in a supermarket, Weinberger exercises her sense of humor, which is self-effacing and understated. But the book is not a humorous one, and the poems quickly revert to Weinberger’s usual seriousness. A particularly plaintive one being “Landscape with Wounded Bird” :

In this other life I live,
I pick up the bird and bring it home –
it nestles near my heart as if it could
assume the beat –

The section ends with a classic Weinberger, “Honeydew In Season”:

How can I hold a ghost of what is falling away, passing
from a full mouth into a swoon of ripe happiness.

From here the book sails on to its satisfying conclusion in the final section prefaced with this concise quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

It is time to be old…

A section that seems to be about both love and aging, two concepts which often seem to be mutually exclusive in our frantically youth obsessed culture, these poems are frank and often startling, as in this one, my friend’s favorite:

Young people think
old people having sex
is funny.

Sometimes it is.
Very funny.
Other times it is sublime.

Sacred Graffiti is not the work of a novice, but rather a highly skilled wordsmith, meting out her lines with careful precision and creating a work of soulful pleasure. Ms. Weinberger is surely a force to be reckoned with.

_____________

Beth Browne: “Why do I love poetry? Because I could never get that damn wheelbarrow out of my head. That and the plums. Because my grandfather composed poems on his prescription pads and my father wrote limericks on cocktail napkins. Because I still have them and because I can still see the rainwater and the chickens.” (womenswrites@inbox.com)

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