Stride Magazine -

  Remembrance of Things Past

Blue Hour
by Carolyn Forché, 79pp, £7.95, Bloodaxe
Sanskrit of the Body by W. B. Keckler, 77pp, US $18.00, Penguin Books

The paper is of better quality, and the print heavier, in Keckler’s book, but Forché’s has better poems, especially her 46-page-long ‘masterwork’ that makes up most of it. Written in the form of an ancient Gnostic abecedary, the lines in alphabetical order, ‘On Earth’ is described by the blurb as ‘a meditation on human existence and life on earth,’ and by Robert Boyers as ‘a transcription of mind passing from life into death.’

On first reading, the poem seems like a long list of images and sentence fragments independent of each other, intriguing in themselves, but also frustrating, since it is difficult to make any overall sense of what you are reading. This sense of frustration rapidly fades as you come across echoes of previous lines and lines repeated from the shorter poems earlier in the book ­ and occasionally two or three lines flow on and make sense ­ making you wonder whether the whole thing is connected in some way.

It is this growing awareness of her epic scope that keeps you reading, as well as the quietly rhythmic chant of the understated lines, which encourages the contemplative, meditative state one experiences in the blue hour
, the unearthly light between night and day, the time between sleeping and waking when the mind is relaxed and open. This is precisely the state of mind the poem requires to be appreciated, and which the experience of reading it encourages; it does not yield to impatient intellectual probing.

              manuscripts in the cold part of the house

              matchbooks flaring in a blank window

              matinal, mirage, mosaic

              meaning did not survive that loss of sequence

                           [from ‘On Earth’]

Like music, the poem exists in space, not in time, the whole only making sense in retrospect when you have listened to all of the individual notes. It is not a narrative poem, but there is a narrative there. As Forché says, ‘My poetry doesn’t tell stories, but it does trace a kind of luminous web of obsessions and psychic and actual events.’

W. B. Keckler’s Sanskrit of the Body
also requires a suspension of conscious analysis, whereby the reader must read and slowly orientate himself in the sequences of poems. The book has a loosely fugal form, with individual themes running through the poems to create a larger tapestry. Apparently, it is ‘an expansive travelogue of the human spirit that moves thoughtfully through multiple ages, cultures and beings…’

According to John Yau, the question Keckler faces when he sits down to write a poem is, ‘How did we arrive in this place of ruins?’ Keckler’s book is ultimately a lament on the disharmony of the world, on the broken connection between man and nature, the destruction and depletion of natural resources that man has caused, and the constriction of the spirit in an age governed by materialism.

When your spine’s magnesium finally ignites, I hope you
will recognize how everything is sleeping on this silly planet.
Only a millionth part of us ever really awoke and we may all
die that way.
[from ‘Sanskrit of the Body’]

But it is an optimistic lament, for he attempts to re-establish man’s place in ‘the continuum of animal existence’, reconnecting all the broken links to create a new, but ancient unity. For example, he compares the loneliness of crickets speaking to the stars with night-time talk radio in a modern metropolis: ‘Voices call, voices tell all, rub / hoarse vocal chords together, the way crickets stridulate in the blue air.’

Many of the images are inventive and startling, but also often irritatingly and pretentiously obscure. The poetic density of some lines is very distracting, for instance, ‘Plant ghosts signal fractally to us in a primeval wind’, which gets in the way of appreciating the poem and the book as a whole, like a scratched paint surface.

There is ambition and humour and a richness of language in these poems, but I found them much less satisfying than Forché’s quietly insistent secular chant. The poems that were most intriguing and rewarding were the sequence of prose poems at the end of the book ­ ‘American Nocturne’ ­ an amusing allegoric satire on American life.

Forché’s Blue Hour
reminds us of poetry’s power to recall, its ability to memorialise and record the past. The way in which ‘On Earth’ is written insists on the necessity of the imagination to connect the individual elements into a whole; and the alphabetical mnemonic form of the poem reminds us that it is language that helps us remember thesethings. It is poetry to meditate on, to linger and ponder over its meaning. It encourages that receptive awareness the poet fears is being lost in the present age.

              © Paul Rowland 2003