Cadence #4

August 22, 2016

If a modest intention of poetry is to stop time, then Don Domanski succeeds masterfully in Fetishes of the Floating World. This numbered series of eighteen reflective poems, published by espresso (an imprint of paperplates books) in a beautifully crafted chapbook, is in lockstep with eternity.

Each poem is aware of the energy of the sonnet form; the series averages fourteen lines a poem but each one varies from nine to twenty-two. Like those of us who know city streets but prefer to wander, Domanski likes “to make/ a sacred moment somewhere off the grid”. These lyrical poems don’t drift into solipsism or sentimentality. His use of spaces instead of punctuation emphasizes his pauses, moderating the speaking voice with unhurried human breath. The clear syntax moves with subtle grace.

Domanski, like his description of a dragonfly focusing in on a midge, gathers in his cadences and tightens the present tense. In addition to the apt word choices, juxtapositions and phrasing there is cumulative beauty in a series where this poet calls back earlier images and concepts. An aquatic bug paddling along the pond’s surface with oarlike hind legs is scientifically ‘a water boatman’; but because in an earlier poem we were on the ‘Charon blue’ that “you cross / to get to the other side” that echo helps us “know its dark grace could carry the world”. In poem 1 “green eyes of the grass blink / and adjust their vision” along with the poet and the reader; in poem 14 we are beside the poet and with “the ocean with its ear to the shore listening for / blades of grass”.

Though they are gleaned from the “Gnostic text / hidden in plain sight” that Don Domanski finds in the natural world; these transparent poems are a pleasure to read. Nevertheless, be aware that in these contemplative lines we aren’t simply at ease in nature, we are invited into darkness and silence.

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Cadence #3

August 15, 2016

What makes a poem jump? In Joy Harjo’s poem ‘We Were There When Jazz Was Invented’ (from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings) the poem jumps along with her saxophonist friend Jim Pepper at the stomp. It also jumps like “a woman who’s given up everything for the forbidden leap / To your arms as you lean over the railing to hear the music hopping at the jump / Pull of the line.”
Her poem jumps at least three times in those two and a half lines. The woman jumps, the music jumps, and the poem itself makes a ‘leap’ from the end of one line to the beginning of the next then makes a ‘jump’ again at the end of the second line on to the next. Line length – from a constant minimum of ten words to one line of twenty-five – is important. Harjo’s line breaks are indicative. As a result, three short lines stand out: “Up into the sky, holy.” “Take me back.” And the last line of the poem “How holy.” She earns her repeated use of that last word by making the poem an “exact …science of the holy.”
Poetry, like life, is also, in her words, “a holy / leap between forgetting and jazz”, “a bear” (a real salmon-catching ‘bear’, ‘a bear of a horn player’, the colloquial ‘hard to bear’, ‘bearing little resemblance’ and ‘the bare/ Perfect neck of a woman’), and “a holy mess”.
In this 38-line poem Harjo gets married to the music, gives birth to the blues, incubates broken dreams, and reconstructs songs ‘buried in the muscle of urgency’.
Her close attention to her craft and her open embrace of ‘the tangle of human failures’ (as she says in another poem – ‘Talking with the Sun’) make this poem worth reading and rereading. Her leaps, which have the joy of improvised jazz, come with the resonance of a prophetic voice.

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Cadence #2

August 8, 2016

There is a quality of music in the balanced rhythms of Julie Roorda’s poetry. Except for the 17- part sequence The Altruist, her poems in Courage Underground (Guernica 2006) rarely go beyond a page. She hardly needs that to find her way into the quality of darkness in what she is nominally writing about. Her titles say Earwig or June Bugs but the quiet voice burrowing into your head is saying ‘harmonic convergence’ or ‘gelatinous transformation’ or ’intimacy with compulsion’.

In a later section, after titles like Everything I regret persists in the form of a small animal and Broken-Hearted Looks on Love, Roorda has a poem called The Quality of Darkness. In 27 lines in 5 verses her attentive listening to a Radio One show on light pollution brings her to a realization:

My eyes are as my skin, sensitive
As the pervious covering of amphibians,
Feeling the press of darkness, being
More than just the absence of light…

In her interior darkness, she and the frog are one and are singing “the same old song: Save me, save me.” By the end of the poem it is the darkness that is speaking and no one who reads it will sleep through it.

For Julie Roorda, and the disembodied aliens she imagines observing us at night, we can shuck off our sarchophagal casings and are “closest to real, / when we are dreaming.”
Become, like her, the subjects of the poems she is writing and have the courage to join in on these underground transformations.

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Cadence #1

August 1, 2016

By the end of the poem, ‘The Novel as Manuscript,’ from his poetry collection The Quotations of Bone, Norman Dubie elaborates his ars poetica. First, he describes how the whole Soviet system starts to vanish when “postage stamps/ like immense museum masterpieces” are discontinued. His allusions to that death-filled change are grounded in the life of Boris Pasternak and his character Yuri Zhivago: “…he was writing/ …at a cold desk/ poems against all experience/ and for love of a woman…” The next generation searches for their vanished mother among the bodies of Stalin’s victims; yet, they are ‘swallowed’ by the incredibly pure image of Zhivago and Lara “…in a frozen wilderness, the summer house…”
Dubie’s art of writing a new poem begins in this kind of reflection.
In another poem from that collection, ‘Lines for Little Mila,’ he tells a friend’s little girl “about some of this” – a shared deep history – “and she immediately slumbered, putting/ a blue ghost inside my chest.” Dubie is reaching in these poems for “the other side…of that river.”
In ‘Prologue Speaking in Tongues,’ it is “this darker incline/ of the Superstitions”; a place where “the world turns its circumference/ into pond water’s broken/ golden mean…”
In ‘British Petroleum,’ “it’s the city, its night ark/ gone alphabet with quarks/ entering the impossibly strange intercessional dark.”
Later, in ‘The Mirror,’ he writes: “It is not belief but/ an attraction/ to an experience we hunger after…” Norman Dubie is willing to go into the fields of black potatoes where the bodies are buried and bring back poems of contemporary and historic truth sung in sharp new ways.

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not quite lilacs

this poem is everything she is and isn’t
how carefully she is restrained yet contiguous
her beauty raises as many questions as answers
yet she’s the one who makes sense in an uncertain world
she summons in me the concordant desire to meet her eyes
but any question from me
makes her wish she were someone else
constantly inspecting her constellations of memory
she brings music to the shapes that haunt her lines
holding herself back from rhymes and ballads
she leavens the weight of words emerging in my work
I want her influence on me like freshly sifted flour
I want to give her back
the scent of lilacs and freshly combined fields

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this poem was found among the ruins of several notebooks

by the way these are not my usual clothes
the imperfect is the present tense
I don’t take white lightly
his black when scraped carefully reveals every colour
“sun in an empty room”
he leaves her in love letters he didn’t let her love in
he doesn’t pause at her commas
if you can’t fly you can drown in a dream
he no longer looks through other people’s windows
he went to the end of the horizontal figure eight
made the turn and came back and
made the endless journey in a different direction
he dropped his roller skates and shook the doorknob

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a larger river

a larger river is still with us
fills up the whole valley
so full of fish we imagine walking on the water
not this unlikely urban river
debranched     half-buried
shorn of its meanderings
we greet the lager river
with patterns made by our own feet
walking along paths that echo the old ways
that know the wily expression of water
finding its wandering way
let’s get lost in amazement
let’s call this river Dana the mother goddess of the Celts
her name is rivers the Danube, the Russian Don, the English River Don
let’s stand where trees stood in the water
where Toronto can be a word for how to catch fish
where salmon spawn
where the cries of birds can still awaken the unknown in all of us
where we can be grateful for the changing course of the river
where we don’t right the river the river writes us
let’s linger where we can learn about time
standing by the river
let’s praise the watercourse not bury it
let us constantly start from the lowland
the wetland that holds back the flood
beside this diminished river we can still find joy
we can mark the places where we’ve lost the curves
and swales and riffles and mud flats and freshets
the ponds and marshes and run-off
find again the original names
for terrain our city has failed to master
listen again for storms that shake the trees
choose not to forget the river’s power
to restore the meanders and braided streams
to make a home for the dragonfly and the red admiral butterfly
for the marsh marigold and the spring ephemerals
for the night herons and song sparrows
for the willows and the trembling aspens
we will be waiting with the milkweed
looking for sources of the river
in the occluded ravines
in the diverted streams and asphalted creek beds
where the birds first flocked to the delta
where the sumach grew
where the Irish planted gardens
where Charles Sauriol settled
where the original people still have rights to hunt and fish
where the canoes came all the way down to the lake
we will walk beside the larger river

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