'To locate a center, walk in circles'

Radius of Light,
Joshua Auerbach (78 pp, $16.95, DC Books, Montreal)

It feels inappropriate to wax lyrical about a first collection that comprises such taut, spare poems throughout, but in a sense that's my job here: so I'll try to evoke the compressed power of this book in some way. 'Radius of Light' is not an easy book to read, despite the apparent accessibility of its briefest pieces. It does, however, get under your skin, and create reaction, whether irritation, painful insight, or a sudden sunlit shaft of euphoria. Like the opening of 'Bee's Edge', 'it stings/ & stings deep'. This visceral response, reactions felt in the veins or the bones, are of perennial concern to Auerbach. And bees are quite a presence too, and echoing the uneasy processes of poetic creativity:

     I spiral by petals
     Beware of my razor point
     My proboscis dips &
     Pulls our primrose nectar

     I sink farther into pollen, my legs covered with granules
     Then on to the next iridescent blossom
          ('Dance of the Arrogant Bee')

Corporeality, landscape and language are all profoundly connected in the poems. To take the body first, poems such as 'Concinnity' look at the cellular origins of both physicality and phrasing: 'Axons & dendrites: a body's sentence.//Cells, the red-basalt churn of sound deep within a/ Barrier'. The system – linguistic or physiological -  admits of slips and dissolution: 'Words break down, discs rearrange themselves/ To forge a deeper mine'. Language and humanity both are forged from creative tensions, Auerbach seems to suggest here: the 'cell sounds' that 'clash in the electron rush' with which this poem concludes.

But the scope of this collection extends beyond the body to the earth itself, both deep structure and specific location.  'Earth Marks' evokes the earth as primal poet itself:

     basalt, slate
     torc-curves of glacial

     moraine-lines drawn
     from the core

     alluvial-flow, stonemason
     the surface that erodes...

     water cascade pushes
     slowly into the forest bed

     morass, butte, carved
     and scored by a needle, slow, planet lines

I'm reminded of the tattooist's needle which scores its text directly onto the body: 'cuts with a drill's precision/ injects ink near veins' ('Love in the Time of Dioxin II').
Also, tangentially, of Basil Bunting: 'Words are too light/ take a chisel to write': the heaviness of poetry that taps into our global core.

Auerbach is not merely an ecologically informed poet, however. Body and landscape can merge, a perfectly unremarkable trope in itself of course, except here it is more frequently done with disturbing  imagery than peaceful pastoral: 'cracked earth-ribs vault open...ore spilt, veins ripped/ crimson pockets of a tobacconist's dream' ('Reading the River from a Cessna'). The more you read 'Radius of Light', the more apparent it becomes that there is an apocalyptic vein in Auerbach's body of work; it pulses uncomfortably and more often than not heralds dissolution of conciousness, white-out, oblivion on a personal and perhaps massive scale too. This reaches a kind of climax in the central poems 'Reflection' ('Will it be black? I will not know/ But I don't want to be dust/ burned in a fire') and 'When the Door Opens': 'In the heat, white lines glow,/ Grow wide or shrink/ Or fuse into the distance').

Reference to 'the Door' here, together with allusions to 'lysergic/ and dopamine-induced/ Visions, swirling circles' inevitably indicates homage to Huxley's 'Doors of Perception' and its hallucinogenic exploration of the worlds beyond everyday consciousness. And there is indeed an hallucinatory shade to many of Auerbach's poems, quite explicitly in the psychedelic 'Phanerothyme' (the word indicates a drug induced mystical experience).  This poem comprises a series of stanzas laid out as prose, unlike the spare lineation of the majority of the poems. There is a splitting and reforming of consciousness here, a shamanistic intrusion into other planes; an uncertain return:

     If he shook your hand, would you know if it's him, or his double?
     The meeting of minds melts the fractal space, reverberates through
     iron. After blitzing wildly like an elk, he dreamt of her face in the light,
     the cave, and the shadows. He stirred the wind with stars, against the
     backdrop of a cloudy sea.

Heady stuff. And not to say that such barging into the presence of God offers much by way of an answer: 'He tries to find the missing link. If there is a way, it would seem to be through theories of the Absurd'. Theories that don't necessarily have to be explored through the use of pharmaceuticals, perhaps. The unpromising sounding 'Herniated Disc' for instance, suggests, along with other poems, that mundance physical incapacity affords space for meditation: 'I know vanishing/ Points, the way light splits into dark then back/ If you stare at it too long.'  'The Spider' offers a similar perspective:

     ...As I lie on my back, sundered,
     unable to lift, the world revolves.
     Invisible center up above, a point
     recedes into nothingness. The weight of matter.

Is there a nothingness waiting behind the fractured faćade of language; nothing else? 'Tears close the wind's mouth/ And nothing is heard but weeping' as Auerbach's translation of Lorca's 'Casida del llanto' concludes (there are some lovely, eloquent translations in this collection, incidentally). Interestingly, if Auerbach's volume ends with oblivion, it is a strangely passionate state and one which might just necessitate a rereading of the previous poems in the light of its reflected flare – more ambiguous than purely nihilistic; more mystical than conventionally romantic:

     Always, you say, & draw near the sun,
     the steady progress
     of our hands across each other.

     You search for the center.
     Continue till you are my body & I
     your source
           ('Drawing Near the Sun')

An experience of communion rather than an Icarus-like fall -  though with what and at what cost is left for the reader to decide.

        © Sarah Law 2008