Opaque and Liquid Verse

Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu, Arlene Ang
(80pp, 7.99,
Joy Change
, Judy Kendall (78pp, 7.99, Cinammon)
You Are Her
, Linda France (90pp, 8.99, Arc)

Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu is a mixture of striking language and beautiful imagery, and in some places (to me anyway) somewhat impenetrable constructions. Ang makes liberal use of the surrealist convention, which sometimes works well, and sometimes not. Interestingly, amid the predominance of non-referential phrasing, there are flashes of literality which, by way of contrast, lie like gems amid more opaque and liquid verse. 

Perhaps the best way to approach Ang's volume is thematically, by which one begins to get a sense of her persistent concerns, which in fact are many and encompass mirroring, pain, death, transformation, human frailty, the passing of time, violence, the fragmenting of identity, illness, loss of control, and silence. There are other themes present no doubt, though these I think are key for Ang. If one is inclined to find symbols, there is much to work with, as Ang makes frequent use of imagery evoking the abovementioned thematic elements, especially death in the latter portion of her collection; she seems especially drawn to animals, mirrors, water, blood, the sun, and insects.

The first piece in the collection, 'A Sun That Isn't a Source of Heat But Instead Paints Its Grief on the Walls of a Private Room,' is nicely chosen, as it exemplifies many of Ang's concerns seen throughout her collection. Her imagery is potent here, packing in much for the reader:

     The mirror is a lesson in stillness, in watching the room
     as it takes place behind your left shoulder.

     Like a mother, the clock wipes its face over and over
     with its hands. 

     The wine glass in one of the paintings now appears
     to the right of the bird with the broken wing.

     A stray wind sucks the curtains into a perverse tango.

     You watch a rat occupy that portion of the room
     where you were told to sit and have a drink.

     There is another hand, scarred where an extra finger
     was surgically removed.

     Dusk leads the sun away for its own good.

     Candles are lit to represent soul and the burning
     of material effects.

     Now the hand is brushing the hair of a dead woman
     into some semblance of order.

     Or beauty.

Certainly with poems of a surrealist bent it's counterproductive to try to say what a poem 'means,' but here if Ang's aim is to evoke, she has done well. The mirror in the first line conjures doubling, a portal also; 'Like a mother, the clock wipes its face over and over / with its hands' is particularly nice, with unexpected juxtapositions ('The wine glass in one of the paintings') and images of decay following soon on, with a feeling of ill-ease or perhaps a dangerous omen as wind sucks curtains 'into a perverse tango'; here I can't help thinking of Poe. The poem seems to be a meditation on decay, identity, and impermanence, the final lines, 'Now the hand is brushing the hair of a dead woman / into some semblance of order. // Or beauty,' perhaps an ironic take on Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. Ang's collection is worth a read, for poems like this.

Judy Kendall's Joy Change is a series of poetic meditations on being a foreigner in Japan, a nation where one can never hope to fully fit in. In a sense her book is travel literature at its best, in that she begins with the unstated premise that all she describes will be through the lens of a biased observer, never fully convinced of the validity of her observations, never sure if what she is seeing is real or the projection of an outsider; it is this tentativeness that gives the book its charm. Some poems in the collection work better than others though, and at times one feels Kendall is perhaps trying a bit too hard to get something out of situations that might simply be experienced rather than mined for meaning. Yet overall the collection succeeds in giving one the feel of a foreigner both intrigued with and perplexed by a society that continues to be seen as hermetic to Westerners.

Early in her collection in a key piece, 'Eye of the Storm,' Kendall identifies with ethnic Koreans living in Japan, '... whose victory comes / from laying to one side their shame / and stripping off their cloaks of local names / to claim their rights as victims //. Here where foreigners are known / as 'outside people'. / Like crows / Never let in'. The final stanza of the poem, perhaps emblematic of how she feels about being a foreigner in a place where by definition one can never be one of the natives:

      Never let in
     to the inner circles,
     fated to hover at Kanazawa castle gate,
     scavenging leftovers,
     liberated (mistakes expected, standards lowered),
     from the rigours of politeness,
     blessed with no shame.
     Yet those that are wise exult in this permission to be odd,
     accepting that to rip the mannered surface
     will never take them to the quiet eye of the storm.  

And here it is that Kendall revels also in the paradox of living in Japan for the Westerner, one is both bound by a culture one cannot truly understand, yet granted unexpected freedom as well. Some of the best pieces in this collection are where Kendall relaxes and drops the critical eye of a foreigner, simply recording her subjective impressions, as in 'Eiheiji,' a mediation on a visit to a mountain temple retreat:

      deep into the mountain
     temple of eternal peace
     and summer tourists

     early morning mist
     the scent of burning cedar
     sweeps the moss

     pine roots
     spilling over
     the temple steps

In addition, Kendall's modest forays into haiku provide a nice interlude, furnishing a pause from some of her more self-conscious reflections on self and other: 'writing the evening / brushstrokes on paper, barefoot / on the veranda,' and 'drifting / mountains shoulder the sky / blotches of pine' are credible bows to this venerable Japanese tradition, and add a pleasing tone. Judy Kendall's Joy Change
is worth the read for anyone interested in Japan, or simply well-crafted verse.

Linda France's You are Her, pivots around a section on nature, cultivation, and artifice, inspired by the life and accomplishments of Capability Brown, a landscape architect born in Northumberland in 1716, though delves also into explorations of death, time, identity, the body, loneliness, perception, transformation, and language through frequent use of metaphors of the breaking, fragility, dissolution, and ultimately regeneration of the body and psyche. France's collection is thematically joined by concerns relating to transformation, natural and facilitated by man. Some transformations are pleasing, some of human artifice, and some painful, like bodily injury, though ultimately presenting the chance for regeneration, even spiritual epiphany. Though drawing heavily from nature and animal imagery, bone seems to be France's core metaphor, one guesses as a meditation on an injury she suffered in 1995, and its effects on her view of the world.

One thing I liked about France's collection, and this is something one hopes to find in a poet, is that many lines and stanzas stand alone as memorable and worth rereading. In 'Dying in My Sleep,' her first piece, she writes: 'When I woke up I was dead;  / the memory of how it happened / like a lift shaft on the outside / of the high-rise of my body.' Here are lines, nicely built, which in a few words evoke a philosophical conundrum, the idea of life as a dream. But in France's poem the dream is ominous, as she writes in the fourth stanza, 'Ground floor was knowing / I was dead and this is what / it feels like: utterly empty, / wide open. And still not over.' Perhaps a corrective response to ecstatic Near Death Experiences, or the realization that 'waking up dead' means still being alive.

One of France's shorter yet poignant poems is 'Knitbone,' which for me evokes the physical and psychic trauma of injury, but also healing, the vulnerability yet recuperative strength of the body: Here she writes:

          Don't be fooled by my soft folds.
         I feel the earth and fix bones.
     My tuberous roots, hidden,
     as all the best things are,
         mend what is broken:
         the cue of all my names
     for curing, soothing  what is sore,
     unsundering. If you know
          what you need, why ignore
          the remedy? Let me bring my way
     with bones to all your blindness.
     Look again at my pleated creams:
          See how I am bell and lantern.
          Breath in the smell of morning rain.

Another noteworthy aspect of France's verse is its geographic rootedness, as in 'Stagshaw Fair,' which she tells us is the 'fell near Dere Street in Northumberland where there was a fair from Roman times up until the early twentieth century when it was decided it was a danger to public morality,' amusing in its irony, yet evocative also of another theme that runs through her work, loss of historical locality. Stanza two reads: 'I know this place, these roads, like my own bones / and also love its secrets. I've walked / the fair, the north, inside myself. Its stones / are fallen walls, markers where the way forked.' Finally, on the theme of transformation, no better piece than France's excerpt from 'The Life Cycle of the Dragonfly':

     I am what remains
     on a leaf when the fly has flown,
     when the dark cracks open.

     If the sun is high
     everything wants to rise toward it.

     I heard wind
     make wings
     of eucalyptus leaves.

     What is this I had to do?
     Shed skin and bone, the soul in me,
     all the gold I buried.

     I was wet
     as the eye of morning.

     Through a small skylight
     in the roof of my back,
     wriggling my few grams
     upward and unfurling,

     I was the same
     but different, a self-portrait
     in molten green, a seed set free.

Howard Giskin 2010