...of Red Room authors
A RIDE ON THE COSMIC FERRIS WHEEL
Adults are inclined to the illusion that all children love clowns and masks and life-sized puppets, but the unknown being inside a funny fuzzy bear costume can sometimes reduce a bemused infant to tears.
In Alex Grant's new work, THE CIRCUS POEMS , he picks up the theme of FEAR OF MOVING WATER and goes on to describe anthropoidal existence in a bewildering universe where even symmetry and order are random. He stresses the fragilility of living forms while showing their tenacious commitment to a beating pulse. We go hurtling through constellations at the mercy of sheer momentum until, worn down to dust, we disappear through a pinprick of light that is birth. Thus the cycle begins again. Of the Human Cannonball, he says:
"He dreams the same dream night after night – he is shooting down a narrowing opening towards a pinprick of light – he hears the muffled voices, clanging metal, the soft, liquid rumble sluicing behind, firegush and cordite thick in his mouth - a subterranean voyager riding towards his nightly salvation, high above the pink blur of humanity, upturned faces calling out his name – knives glinting in their hands."
Was there ever a more vivid analogy of birth? One wonders whether the poet dimly remembers his own to have infused this with so much elemental energy.
The circus characters are the acceptable face of the sinister aspects of human nature. Such entertainment ensures the riveted curiosity of an audience in ecstacies of alarm about how close to annihilation it is possible to steer while keeping balance on life's tightrope. They are all present, the Clown, the Bearded Lady, the Contortionist, the Magician, the Lion-Tamer, the Strongman...
"Listen as he tears a telephone directory of hearts in two. The strongman fears nothing, Tiger-striped, thicker-skinned than the elephant, wilderness in his eyes, hair thick as tug-boat rope, he'll crush your ribs like a bar of sodden soap. Children ride on his shoulders, powder pink and soft as guilt..."
In different ways, these individuals sum up what our dreamlike span means on a disintegrating planet. The Fortune Teller's words have a soporific hum that 'winds in your ear'.
"You are on a very long voyage, unsure of your destination – many companions will come and go, certain places will hold you – you are moving, returning, always returning."
To capture any of it is a feat as great as any prowess demonstrated by the Acrobat.
"...then flips her grasshopper body and lands on the white stallion's back as it canters past. Her body melds with the horse -its snort and rumble pulsing through her feet...mane flapping like white seaweed in a bridled sea of dust and plumes and memory."
Between the big-top spectacular and peeping in at the sideshows, we dip into a few of the calamitous events of global history's fair. Here, the characters are unmasked projections of those ogled from the ringside. The edges of the Self melt and the lives of the many are contained like fluid in the life of one.
There is a vivid and atmospheric account of the Bolshevik drive to capture Archangel where the White Army put up fierce resistance. I found it reminiscent of the Komarovsky train scene in Doctor Zhivago. The narrative moves from phrases about rutted earth, reddened snow and shards of bone, through wind and ice and men and animals pitching camp in the forest until the wheels turn again:
"and I am done with tents and pegs and iron cages
...Today, I heard a gunshot from my window – the blast echoed
like a lost voice and I imagined the animal falling, its hooves
extending like a four-pointed star, its breath gushing
to the center of the world, its body sucked into the vortex..."
to this, the following day, as if a grip on reality were only to be conserved within the memory:
"...The democracy of snow falls noiselessly to earth. Tomorrow, I will walk
and eat snow and think of my wife – but in this moment,
I raise a glass of Bull's Blood to the world -
my first in seven years, and it tastes like the ache
of a young boy – like summer by the Bosphorous - "
and, finally, to this:
"...The Buddha said that to be born human
is like coming up for air in an infinite ocean
and finding your head inside the only ring that floats..."
When the circus passes through Mesa Verde on its roll from Colorado to Utah, a flash flood washes away the big cats' trailer, but the show goes inexorably on with its thrills, spills, its contortions and deformities. There is a quotation from the Lancashire Evening News of November, 1871 in which a two-headed, eight-limbed female entertained an audience at the Temperance Hall with her duets, one voice contralto, the other soprano, in a 'very pleasing manner'. This says everything about our amorphous values and attitude to Death. The story underlines the shiftingness in all things. Those stalwart Victorians might well have applauded themselves for their triumph over the demon liquor, and even a civilised lack of qualms, but their primitive palate for horror was undiminished.
As Virginia Woolf once remarked: the accent falls in the wrong place.
For, there are times when the circus itself, with its cracking whips, flinging knives, bloody teeth, fields the danger. During an earthquake which devastated an Andean Valley in 1971, dislodging millions of tons of glacial rubble, 25,000 people perished in one town alone. According to the Punta Arenas Citizen, only 400 people survived and 300 of those were children attending a circus performance.
The ghost of a Deity, neither benevolent nor inimical, looms through these poems. One such passage describes the Trapeze Artist:
"The cross-bar hangs like a churchyard flag in a lull - the congregation
waiting for one more revelation to come flying out of cloistered cloth.
The priest of the air mounts his wooden pulpit – throws his spangled
cape into the audience and genuflects in their direction. A silent cross,
a mumbled prayer, and he looks up past the blazing light, the catcher’s
arms open like a pale sacrament, eucharist of skin and bone and wrist."
This is a superbly focused volume and is, in some ways, more sophisticated than FEAR OF MOVING WATER**. But there is little whimsical diversion, just unvarnished irony. Grant uses words like surgical instruments probing the deeps of the psyche to abstract the truth. He skilfully dissolves the barriers between all the human senses and methods of perception. This is not for the squeamish. Or the panic-stricken who are anxious to stop the world and get off.
This unnerving ride on the cosmic ferris-wheel will certainly affect your vision.
THE SPINNING OF ATOMS
Runner-up for the 2010 Oscar Arnold Young Award - Best Collection by a North Carolina Poet. (June, 2010)
Runner-up for the Brockman Campbell Award - Best North Carolina Poetry Collection. (June, 2010)
As someone from a family with a long naval history, who has relatives lost or buried at sea, I tend to hold my breath when a camera pans below the tideline. So the title of Alex Grant's poetry collection Fear of Moving Water piqued a particular interest.
But the metaphor turns out to be nothing so tame. In fact, it is as comprehensive as it could get. The water he refers to is the teeming water of Creation itself, at once terrifying in its awesome potential and benign in its benevolent intent.
Atoms that can split are capable of spinning, too.
Between these two poles, the prism pivots in light and flashes its crystal miracles. The book opens with this elemental piece, entitled Black Moon:
I watch him drag the boat across
the scree, over the dry doggerel
of mackerel scales and filament
of a season ended, to the water.
The sand flays the last flakes
of paint from the boat's hull,
splash and crack at the confluence
of stone and water, and he is out
beyond the waves, where fishbones
glint like small suns in a black mirror,
and the splay of the Pelican's wing
stitches the sea to the sky. Brine-
bleached hands haul the sodden creel
above the gunwales, and there again
is the gaping child-shaped hole,
sawn by the snapping turtle's teeth,
ragged-cut and impossible to mend.
Did I say that the turtle is guided
by ambient moonlight? So, the wolf
howls, The waves gnaw the shore.
Bones and light are mixed with water
The poet has adopted a pristine kind of omniscience, not that which stands aloof and plies with observation and revisited emotion, but one that enters subtlely into the 'beingness' (istigkeit?) of his subject. This strikes me as something not quite defined by empathy. By a fluent evolution of images he invokes a new awareness and succeeds in capturing the instant of genesis almost by mood alone.
much unseen activity under the opaque waves -
like shoals of trigger-fish scuttling to fertilize
flotillas of bobbing eggs – frenzied clouding
explained away by the calm biology of ganglion
and axion, the clustered nerve and inexplicable
attraction named, as if by naming we could
pin the unknowable, the way we name clouds -
Cirrus, Fractostratus, Cumulonimbus, Mammatus.
There is a similar dissolution of flesh and matter to Shelley when he loses himself in the imagery of 'nature' and paints a facsimile of human nature. Boundaries are always permeable.
In The Ocean, Bones Flash Like White Stars In Winter...
...The wise man knows that
The sea, the gull, the salmon,
All contain the world
Grant is his own universe whose confines are limited only by the mind and soul's capacity to catch reflections. Memory seems to stir with recognition of the pre-natal element of incarnation. There are no ends and beginnings. We are caught up in a gigantic cyclical force of endless birth, baptism into life and seasons, skin sloughed off, else shed like confetti, a splintering of tooth and bone, the delirium of death throes, whilst the 'random immensity of the world' is a place full of eggs and latent regeneration. The cuckoo sings and all things pervade 'the scent of life'.
Meanwhile the life men live is one of stark compression, minutely sequinned with fleeting truths.
Firepit sparks fly like lightning bugs,
brief and brilliant
in their tiny incarnations – universes of light.
It is all too vast to take on board and there is the danger that the circle, hurling through space, might spin out of control. What's the use of hurrying and harrying to try and keep up?
There's Love and Death, and in between, you eat and drink
The sun, the moon, the ocean's noiseless halls,
It really doesn't matter what you think.
Amphibious till the moment that you blink
Below the amniotic rain that squalls -
There's Love and Death, and in between, you eat and drink...
In Fear of Moving Water, Grant has worked hard to make some very complex insights accessible, inspired by an original imagination and instinctive use of language. Some of the poems are wry, some stricken, some bemused. And some humorous, as in the one entitled Giant. The narrator, who says elsewhere: 'Each universe defined by each observer' is smoking a cigarette whilst watching a column of midges at sunset. He decides that 'eight midge seconds equals one of our years' and reflects upon the advancing stages of insect maturity, which turns out to be a brilliant analogy of human experience. 'He spiraled up again, and by the time he'd reached the top, he'd sent all seventeen-hundred of his children to a fashionable private swarm in the upper reaches of a more desirable neighbouring tree.' The poor creature went to his doom with only three-quarters of the cigarette spent!
Such minutiae, as well as being entertaining, bring eternity within touching distance.
This is a fascinating collection which never suspends the wonderment that can be translated into Hope. 'The taste of mystery never leaves the mouth'.
But don't just take my word for it. See for yourself.
website - http://windpub.com/books/movingwater.htm
CIRCLES AND ARCS
'To continue one's journey in the darkness with one's footsteps guided by illumination of remembered radiance is to know courage of a peculiar kind – the courage to demand that light continue to be light even in the surrounding darkness.'
The quotation is from Howard Thurman and prefaces award-winning writer, Aberjhani's volume of poetry, THE BRIDGE OF SILVER WINGS. For me, it just about sums up the human predicament which he elaborates upon with stunning effect.
Haloes, rainbows, the cycle of the seasons and the full spectrum of emotions from love to hate to love are explored in its pages.
These verses are packed tight with powerful images that come thick and fast like a blessed assault upon the mind and heart. They ring with philosophy, with compassion, with hope and with tokens of resurrection. And they are sometimes barbed with challenges, as in Angel of War:
Does the potential for peace make the reality of hate sweeter?
And in ANGEL OF HEALING:
Dare to love yourself
as if you were a rainbow
with gold at both ends.
Aberjhani's writing blows the mind and frees the psyche of any rigid assumptions about ancestral heritage. Here, our collective experience is starkly rendered. The transparency of one culture overlays another, and another, to form the daguerrotype of possibilities that is homo sapiens, interacting, almost like the elements themselves, with the created world and modified only by context and its imperatives.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in All Night in Savannah the Wind Wrote Poetry. The gale knows nothing of Time. It is a primeval force. It has seen all mankind's feats, frustrations and follies before and is a screeching reminder, 'like knives on fire', of what comes next in the logical gamut of human reaction.
'...they [the winds] cast and recast nets of lexicons inside the womb
of the river's roaring belly, hauling up myths
born in Georgia and legends sung in Carolina...'
'...wind typed furiously remembrances of Buddha;
on the aching spines of weeping pines it carved
the bleeding parables of Christ and
the pleading hadiths of Muhammad,'
'Wind of Confederate blood boiling gray miseries
Wind of black slaves dancing juju jazz charisma.'
This is the language of the Book of Revelation and it is blinding. With rhythms like these, you might well feel that the Creation of Man was a Bad Idea, one of God's regrettable afterthoughts.
As well as the melting-pot of traditions and civilisations, there is a blurring of the boundaries of the senses. We tend to identify them singly but we know they don't function alone. In Sunday Afternoon and the Jazz Angel Cometh, they seem to coincide in an orgasmic reunion which not only celebrates life but redeems it.
As history bleeds forbidden light
thunder-heavy tears drip flavored adagios,
splash and explode into champagne solos
...In the center of time's thorny labyrinth there you
are – naked you swallow quasars and spit raw genius
cook your poems fresh, make music, make sense,
The Poet-Angels Who Came to Dinner is reminiscent of the biblical parable of the King planning a banquet for guests who declined his invitation. He then sent out his servant into the highways and byways to round up the dregs of humanity. It also echoes Christ's feeding of the multitude and the burning inspiration felt by the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus who failed to recognise the stranger walking beside them. Only in the breaking of bread as a guest at their table did they surprise the Risen Lord.
In the poem, these presences are termed “Peace-Be-Still” and “As-Goes-Love-So-Goes-Life”. They manifest themselves as the poet prepares his lone and paltry supper, transforming the fare into an epicurean delight. A knock at the door heralds uninvited guests and with a renewed benevolence of spirit, he finds he has much to share.
There are harrowing pieces, too. Once Was a Singer for God (remembering Nekia) pays tribute to a gospel singer whose life was blighted by every kind of cruelty and despair, but whose sufferings, the writer says, 'coated your tongue with heaven's favor'. She lives again within the memory of those honeyed vocals which are earnest of her bid for Heaven.
No one knew how you transformed
scars on your back into scented songs
...Was that your mind running naked through the West
while your soul warbled haikus in the East?
ANGEL OF EARTH DAYS AND SEASONS
A soft dream of green
colors starlit intentions
In your hands winter
is a book with cloud pages
that snow pearls of love,
Your flight shines classic -
composed of symphonic nights
and honey-hued days.
Inside your laughter
spring's kiss animates the beat
of summer's warm song.
In your hair oceans
leap with sky-blue abandon
and sacred timelines.
Eyes of bright autum
stare with red tear-stained wisdom
at human regret.
Bombs explode gashes
that flicker tales of men's blood
splattering you lips.
Rivers of poets
flow blues-heavy urgencies
naked on your knees.
Even when muddy
your wings sparkle bright wonders
that heal broken worlds.
In the dancing fields
of your sweet and holy ways
heaven blossoms gold.
I have indulged myself and the reader with copious quotation, but there are scores more, just as good and even better. Aberjhani's work repays revisiting again and again. This is surely a sign of consummate talent.
THE STUNNED BUZZ OF RESURRECTION
"Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. The last is essential."
It may seem a little odd to begin a review of poetry with a quote about artists, but the Snell sisters don't make such distinctions easy. While each is pledged to keep her own internal boundaries, so that Janet's pictures are not a direct expression of Cheryl's poems, but rather conjure the atmosphere of them, it is plain that both are consummate artists, one with well-honed quill, one with psychogenic brush.
The 'heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors' applies equally to 'true poet', Cheryl. Her verses are a riot of color, sometimes named colors from the palette. She speaks of 'blue irony' and 'the indigo moments before bed' and 'alizarin, vermilion, cadmium, red wings beating everywhere at once'. Those who paint, or spend a lot of time in galleries, know how shades of red vibrate and redefine a whole canvas. Then there are the subtler hues, as in the gentle poem, Aura.
fracture the rainbow
in a puddle.
A spray of seven colors
prisms the sky.
It falls back to earth,
around a thin yellow foot
it mistakes for the sun.
Cheryl's mastery of language is breathtaking, her phrases turned with lancet-precision. The montaging of constrasted images taps deep into the soul and releases elusive truths with the chaste simplicity of oxygen bubbles rising to the surface of a lake. You can feel at one with the unfurling torsion of spring, its sinews newly braced, in Poem With Spring Fever, opening you up to growing possibilities beneath a benevolent sky.
The perspectives range from under-your-nose through middle distance to wide blue yonder, with close-up shots that refuse to freeze and leave you on the crest of longing. A broken spider's web is 'a ruination of silk geometries' while 'In the stunned hush of its own snapped strands, the spider writhes and rolls in a ransom of insects.' Hope describes 'how the glazed sky hurled through will feathers will sometimes part like water for one bird.'
And who, in love, has never been poised on this precipice described in Closer?
vibrate like colours on a map.
My senses are a balcony
overhanging the sea's dark watch,
its cosntant ticking. I wait,
a flicker of light upon the spine,
from my high place.
The rooms sway, and I know you
are near, the train pulling
into the station,
down the escalator,
eyes on the door,
its hinged footing,
your hand opening the cab's yellow
into the rush-hour surge.
This is not poetry merely to beguile the imagination; it is experience by vital proxy, full of pulse and texture and radiance.
Memento Mori is a tour de force. I cannot praise it enough and feel privileged to have had the chance to review such a gem. The book is well-produced and does credit to poet and painter on every level. Janet Snell's expressionist art - vaguely reminiscent of Edvard Munch but intensely unique - broods over these pieces, depicting shape and shadow from the hazy layers of the subconscious. These presences shifting through space are the masks we tow our troubled worlds behind.
If the title suggests that Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality has been turned on its head, then it would certainly be misleading. This book is life-affirming to a degree and proves the paradox that there is still life beyond the barbed reminders of human transience.