Sunday, February 25, 2024

FAME by Kevin McGrath

 


FAME, Kevin McGrath. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 253 pages, $25.00 paperback,

 

            Unlike most contemporary poetry being written in the English language—particularly contemporary American poetry—the poetics and structure of FAME are not what Megan Fernandes, author of I Do Everything I’m Told (Tin House, 2023) calls an “artifice of mess.”

Kevin McGrath describes poetry in the Afterword, and enacts on every one of its 252 pages of tight, what he calls regulated verse, as not existing “except in a formal and harmonious state… that forceful coherence suppl[ying] us with our necessity and location….”

            Written primarily in iambic tetrameter, fitting almost always seven stanzas (centered) per page, dividing this long poem (it cannot really be called a collection) into four parts that McGrath lays out for the reader on page two (“I - 2”) as “four winds.”


            There are four winds about the world

               That move within the human soul

               First – the strange attraction going

                        Between a girl and boy

 

                  The second takes us on in time

                     So that we might look back

                  At the residence and procession

                     Of what is lost upon our way

 

      The third is the emptiness that

         Fills up our breathing days

         As we go toward our source

      Its quietness makes us more still

 

         The final air is that of beauty

         Quick ephemeral always true

      The breeze that makes substantial

         Everything we do not know

         Song of what we cannot say

 

 

The center or subject matter or tension in Fame is a recreation of the hero’s journey of Achilles as emblematic of the “one narrative in this world,” this work reflecting that pattern in each of its four sections of 1) the Attraction between male and female; 2) Time’s arrow; 3) Emptiness; and 4) Beauty.

            Reminiscent of the adoration passages spoken by the writer of The Song of Songs from the Biblical canon (e.g. “Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes within thy locks…thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks”—from Chapter 4, vs 1-3), are the one-hundred pages of section I, of which stanzas from I-21 and I-22 follow:

                                    I-21

            They come and go and trespass

                        Freighted with desire

               Young women of the spring

                  In their summer dresses

 

                     Crocus yellow hyacinth

               Their golden shoulders bare

                        A green text burning

                        Sweet upon their lips

 

                                    I-22

 

            The nature of my love is this

               I witness you as no other

              When you are mine to hold

              Refining our warm volume

 

            I love your bones and your smell

                  A scent of leaves and rain

               At the hollows of your joints

               My hands confess their love

 

And in section I-67, a long piece defining the essence of love, we seem to have an answer to the above passages, at least in part:

           

               Love gives us tongues and insight

               It fills us with concupiscence

            Without love we are empty creatures

          Phantoms who cannot speak nor touch

 

            His voice removed my loneliness

            Just as his strength took my lust

               In his person I find a home

               And in his sleep I find rest

 

Many references to “Time” in section II are told “slant” as Dickinson suggested and exemplified: (“Being drawn by the not-having / And then in the satisfaction / We still miss the conclusion / To this long endless call” from II-2; “There is only one day ever / In our live and one occasion / For vision to be complete” from II-4; and “These slow hours are insufficient / For you [to] sleep far away content / Unaware of how life could rest” from II-7 are examples.) However, in II-23 McGrath speaks more directly to “Time” from a subjective perspective:


            On my sixty-sixth year on earth

               I walked out for distraction

            Loving the sand loving the dust

               The unmasking of the air

 

            A firm wind from off the lake

               Was bevel on the hot light

            As if desperate for release

               For destiny to be complete

           

            The distance were hazy and

               The low brown hills at rest

            As my years gathered close

               Awaiting their dismissal

 

            So much time so little place

               So little achieved in living

            Yes this is where my heart stays

               Where I wish to sleep

 

            Section III brings us to “…the emptiness that / Fills up our breathing days.” Examples of images that haunt these lines are “…a field / Surrounded by speechless stones” (III-1); a “perfect sphere” that “appears when we close / Our eyes and there is no sound” (III-2); “…life is a mirror…/ …no one is truly present” (III-3); “light becomes quiet // / The river empty of boats / No one works the ridged fields” and “…an infinite sea” where we “ Submerge and leave no trace” (III-5); “…a river made of shadow / Flowing deep into the earth” (III-8); a “universe…made of night / Of coldness…/ …no shadows moving / Among silent minerals” (III-9); “A glass of water…consumed / … / …life becomes invisible” (III-12); and again, “…a mirror / …. / Called solitude when we / Become absent from ourselves” (III-18). And yet, McGrath never falls into despair, holding onto a belief in love—"When love calls from a distance // …no one sleeps nor deceases” (III-13)—and a belief in beauty, which is the focus of Section IV.


            There are three causes here

               Driving us among the days

                  Drawing us through time

            Where beauty is unspeakable [italics mine]

 

            In section four, the first three sections (attraction between lovers; time’s arrow; emptiness; and beauty) are re-capitulated and emerge from McGrath’s pen as birds and other winged creatures (swallows, fireflies, dragonflies, kestrels, and falcons, e.g.) to carry love aloft, epitomized by the love of Achilles (IV-15):


Achilles you loved too much

               You went beyond this world

            Only your horses knew your way

               And there was no zero at all

 

This first stanza re-introduces Achilles and the reader understands that McGrath has been writing about him all along:


            Your song became beautiful

            Perfectly light and sonorous

            You went so far out of time

         Unbound by the breath of words

 

In III-14, McGrath opens with a passage that captures, for this reader, perhaps the most insistent of the many themes in this dense, yet musically lyrical tome:

 

            The choirs that compose our lives

                  Birds cicadas wind rainfall

               Someone call out our name

               When there is no one present

 

                        So we lightly part the air

               With words or with footsteps

                        A vast immortal order we

                     Do not observe yet inhabit

 

In Fame, Kevin McGrath parts the air with music that rivals the best of classical poetry, drawing from all three genres: the dramatic, the narrative, and the lyrical. Readers will be elevated to musical and ideational heights for generations to come, reading this epic poem, so unusual these days for its beauty of language and coherence of thought.  

 

 

 

           

Sunday, February 11, 2024

IT BEGAN, by Michael Jemal

 

IT BEGAN, Michael Jemal. Blue Light Press, 2024, 15 pages, paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com

 

Poetry chapbooks are intended to be small jewels, each poem a facet of material cut from the same slab of language, reflecting light from a slightly different perspective. At times, poems find their way into the manuscript because they are favorites of the poet or because the poet doesn’t have enough material on the main theme to flesh out the book. Not so with It Began by Michael Jemal. Each poem not only begins with the anaphora “It began…” but the “it” that is introduced at the beginning of each poem becomes a Rorschach test, interpreted by each reader according their background—in their living, their reading, and—if a writer—their own work.  

As a poet, as well as a reader, I find that each poem can be an ars poetica—a poem about poetry itself—as well as a poem about love—love for writing or any other life-changing endeavor, or love for a person. Thus, in the Prologue, the first line can become “[writing poetry] began when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot / and you broke / into a million excuses.” It can just as easily become [Our relationship began] when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot…” This first stanza develops themes of both love and writing so that the final stanza yields a conclusion to either one: “I have so many stories in my pocket / I need to unwind. / Have you ever seen / inside the body / of a meaningful thought. / There are so many shades of despair, / I’m almost ready to shout.”

            The tight focus of “It began” that begins each poem also allows for a capaciousness of subject matter, but the poems themselves provide cues for what each “it” may be without intruding into the reader’s private interpretations and by never closing a poem in a neat, tidy bow, but rather always leaving room for mystery. “It Began 1,” for example, ends with “There was no way to know / when I opened the door to the bathroom / and stood in front of [a] mirror / I would wonder / who was looking at me.” “It Began 9,” beginning with “It began after the divorce,” ends with “Different people do different things. / Take anything you want, take it all I say. / We are what we don’t throw away,” once again leaving the poem open at the end. And in “Epilogue” (“It began when I went to the mailbox”) the poem ends with “Inside the envelope sheets of blank copy paper / stapled together / as if it were a novella I needed / to meditate on, / rethink the characters / and keep track of their frailties. / Characters who needed to find /their own way to the epilogue / despite how lost they were. / That much I am certain,” leaves a wide bandwidth on the dial of what the narrator is not certain.

            The power of these poems lies, in part, with the reader’s expectations being subverted by their enjambments and unlikely pairings of words—in the case of “Prologue,” adjectives with nouns, and verbs with objects of prepositions.

            It began when I accidentally

            stepped on your left foot

            and you broke

            into a million excuses.

 

            Breaking (pun intended) line three after “broke” is a gesture that changes everything in the poem and puts the reader off-guard for the remainder of the poem after reading the line “into a million excuses.” The next couplet does not disappoint with “What good is love without a few / hazard lights flashing.” Later, the lover morphs into the writer with:

            I’ve been patching myself together

            for years.

            I’m brand new.

 

            If I put on my best pants

            will you dance with me tonight.

            I have so many stories in my pocket

            I need to unwind.

            Have you ever seen

            inside the body

            of a meaningful thought.

            There are so many shades of despair,

            I’m almost ready to shout.

            The entire book’s structure can be said to alternate between language either more conducive to love or to writing, without squeezing out the possibility of the other—both in poem order and in the order of stanzas within the poem. Poems 4 through 9, e.g., are ostensibly about love, beginning with the opening lines “It began as a nightmare / When every time I tried to whisper / into the ear of the woman beside me / wisteria leaves flew out my mouth” and concluding with these final lines from “It Began 9” about divorce:

            What’s worse than being told

            you are not loved.

            It’s like falling to the ground

            after you’re already on the ground

            or giving up your wants

            to hold onto everything you’ve ever wanted.

            Different people do different things.

            Take anything you want, take it all I say.

            We are what we don’t throw away.

After this series of poems about love, we have the following opening lines to “It Began 10”:

            It began when I received

            a postcard from myself

            “There are no miracles” it read,

            “without strings attached.”

Poems 11, 12, and 13 (Epilogue) continue this theme of writing after the divorce with lines such as “It began when I accidentally / walked into a room full of strangers / who used bandaids for hatchet wounds” (from “It Began 11”); “…I’ve promised myself I’d change, / become a better man. / Someone who will consider / experiences as an irreplaceable / puzzle piece to his life. / A man with a dependable door / on the back of his head / that won’t easily open…;” and finally in the epilogue, a return to interpretation that can easily hold both writing and love and any other thing that one might be passionate about:

            Epilogue

            It began when I went to the mailbox

            and found a manila envelope from you.

            How did you find me, I gave up

            my name years ago

            when it was still possible to become yourself,

            despite the many disappointments.

 

            Inside the envelope

            sheets of blank copy paper

            stapled together

            as if it were a novella I needed

            to meditate on,

            rethink the characters

            and keep track of their frailties.

            Characters who needed to find

            their own way to the epilogue

            despite how lost they were.

            That much I am certain.

 

            It Began is indeed a tiny jewel box of glimmering poems that not only please but make us want more. We can only hope that this chapbook is true sample of what is to come from this poet whose poems are rendered with perfect timing and a voice we can immediately trust—that future readers will write about Michael Jemal’s work — “It began” with a small chapbook that was the beginning of a poet’s significant contribution to the canon of 21st century poetry.

 

           

 

 

 

           

           

 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

CATALOGUE OF SURPRISES by Dorothy Wall

Blue Light Press, 2023, 81 pages, $20.00 paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com




Throughout her newly released poetry collection, Dorothy Wall demonstrates the ability to fuse language both concrete (e.g., “refrigerator on the freeway” and a “baby born in [a] bomb shelter,”) as well as abstract (e.g. “hope,” “absurdity” and, as in the title poem, “surprises,” “plans,” “accidents,” and “acquisitions.”) This range from nominalism to idealism, where many times along the continuum words intersect both worlds (as in “shelter”), is an earmark of Wall’s work in this collection, making it appealing to both die-hard students of post-modern poetry and the occasional reader who needs tone and conversational language in order to stay with it.

            On the concrete end of the spectrum is a poem like “Not Today,” where practically all of the abstractions appear in the title, early lines and final lines, the remaining narrative being comprised of imagery appealing directly to the senses.

           

            While damage unmoors and upends,

            we go to the pool. I don’t swim,

I watch, a glaring water-light my granddaughter

            dives under, hair streaming and sleek.

            It’s easy here. Water chlorine-clean,

            untouched by brown torrents gushing,

            waterfall heavy, through Kentucky streets,

tearing into basements, taking down houses,

            power lines, SUVs like the house of cards they are.

            The truth, the wet truth. In Pakistan a deluge

            devours hillsides, houses, lives. Maldives’ beaches

            disappear, gigantic bites. Here a shimmer

            of blue popsicle puddles on cement.

            Child voices in splashy play.

                                    A reckoning hovers

            above the gleaming water like an Old Testament

            prophet scolding and hurricane huge, ready to

            bind us in his furious arms.

Eventually. Not today.

 

 

At the other pole is a poem like “Where to Find Hope”:

 

                        “The phrenologists already knew that hope was situated

                        in the prefrontal cortex: ‘in front of conscientiousness,

                        and behind marvelousness, being elongated in the direction

                        of the ears.’”

                                    “Electrified,” by Elif Batuman, The New Yorker,

                                                                                                April 6, 2015

 

            Clearly I’ve been searching all the wrong places

            trekking through uncertainty, lost

            in absurdity.

 

            My fingertips wander to the precise spot, massaging scalp

            like a clairvoyant her crystal or a mother her baby’s

            fontanelle, still open

 

            Skeptical self, please believe in the possible

 

                        against evidence

            Everyone’s tired of the news, fill my head

            with something else

 

            a map clear as a phrenologist’s staked claim

                        giving us not only discovery

                                    but faith. I don’t need

 

            answers, just beginnings, like that infant

                        newly swum up from its bath

                                    of stem cells that can be anything

                        heal anything

 

            that swarm to where they belong

            doing what they’re meant to

                                                unbewildered

 

            their orchestrated flood, like hope

                        changing

                                    what they touch

            in the beginning.

            What we do next is what matters.

 

            Even though “Where to Find Hope” is filled with as many abstractions as appear in any poem of the book, (e.g. “uncertainty, absurdity, skeptical, discovery, faith,” and “hope”), they are counter-balanced with “fingertips, scalp, crystal, stem cells” and other palpable language, allowing the poem to serve as a conduit between the right brain and the left—utilizing language to bridge the gap between this world and another.

            Many poems are structured in couplets, a fitting form for the lyrical narratives that populate the book. In “Hemingway Puts Down His Gun,” Wall lays down a prosody against which to measure her poems—and her poems do not disappoint.

            I read the story somewhere, how each day

            he tried to stop writing when he knew

 

            what came next

 

            As long as words, strong as a rope

            hauled him into another day

 

            he knew he’d keep going

            If you ever thought words can’t save us

 

            think again: a string of words

            a suspension bridge

 

            a rope we’ve tied ourselves to

            above the chasm

 

            You’d think I’d understand this rope-pulled

            undertaking, this aerial act, but I don’t

 

            this trusting at the edge that requires

            trusting yourself, now that’s

 

            scary. Below the river flits from green

            to blue, darker at the bend

 

            where words end

            until

           

In terms of length, poems vary from the nine-line “All the Ghosts” to the three-page “How to Survive” dedicated to the poet’s great-grandfather Frank Thomas Wall, “who twice lost his mind, the second time after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927”—from the epigraph. The title poem, “Catalogue of Surprises” is emblematic of the longer poems. It deals with viral illness and provides a four-fold structure with its divisions of “Catalogue of Surprises,” “Catalogue of Plans,” “Catalogue of Accidents,” and “Catalogue of Acquisitions.” There is a metaphorical sensibility to this poem that parallels the tone of the entire collection. “What happens in a house / doesn’t stay in a house” are the poem’s opening lines. The enjambment works perfectly to both look backwards as a question and forwards as one answer:

…It’s the wanderings

within I didn’t expect,

cellular shifting, these guests

that stay, altering the body

like a birthmark or your

children. What happened?

A virus flew into my mouth,

burrowing, roaming,

remaking my world.

 

“Catalogue of Surprises” is an ars poetica in disguise, with its Richard Hugo-like wisdom for writing as “…everything accidental… / everything. No plan. Who could / plan what we end up with? /Haphazard as a virus that takes / any portal as invitation to settle / …to root, survive.” In the final section, “Catalogue of Acquisitions,” the poet continues her imagery layered between illness and the compulsion to write, reminding one of an interview question posed to Robert Creeley about the meaning of his poems which he answered by pointing to how he didn’t understand his children, and why would one presume to understand one’s poems: “…I haven’t figured out wholeness / or these visitors that stay,” answers Wall to the question of “What happened?” “Perhaps that viral virility / puffers down with time / dulled and senescent / its mark fading. Perhaps / we’ll grow used to / each other, until our needs / coincide and I can’t discern / the stranger inside.”

            In this collection, Dorothy Wall gives us a glimpse of her “stranger inside” and we learn that hers is no different from the strangers inside us that surprise in spite of all our plans. In the end, they help Wall acquire “…a string of words / a suspension bridge // a rope we’ve tied ourselves to / above the chasm.” If we pay attention to these poems, they can instruct us how to do the same—both in our lives and in our writing lives.

            Catalogue of Surprises is capacious in scope of themes, and yet never seems to depart from core issues dealt with in the canon over the centuries. I am certain that newcomers to poetry, as well as informed readers and writers of poetry, will enjoy this book’s fresh diction, unexpected syntax, and substantive material for many years to come.  



Dorothy Wall is author of Identity Theory: New and Selected Poems (Blue Light Press) and Encounters with the Invisible: Unseen Illness, Controversy, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Southern Methodist University Press), and coauthor of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net, and her poems and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Cimarron Review, Eastern Iowa Review and others. She has taught poetry and fiction writing at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley Extension. Visit her at www.dorothywall.com.

 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

A Pilgrimage of Churches by Ron Starbuck


 

A PILGRIMAGE OF CHURCHES, Ron Starbuck. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 60 pages, $18 paperback, http://www.saintjulianpress.com

 

A Pilgrimage of Churches is a collection of Ron Starbuck’s black and white photographs of primarily church buildings, with some schoolhouses, farms, and landscapes, counterpointed with meditative verse in liturgical style, commemorating the heritage of people and place in and around Easton Township, Leavenworth County, Kansas, and in his current residence of Houston, Texas. In his own words, the project is “one person’s answer to the landscape of the Great Plains, flowing from Canada to the Coastal Plains of Texas, and the people who live there, who work the land, and who worship together in community on the Sabbath” (the Sabbath being a common euphemism for Sunday in the religious tradition of many rural church denominations).

Actually, the book devotes three-fourths of its footprint to the “Great Plains”—The Smokey Hills, The Glacial Hills of Kansas, The Flint Hills of Kansas, and one-fourth to The Coastal Plains of Texas (Houston). In those terms and in other ways, this collection is a soaring success. The striking photos document a life that was common after the Civil War until the latter half of the 20th century—every town and municipality not only in the Great Plains, but in, dare I say, in most rural places where people worked the land and lived in community with a common heritage, mythos, and practice about and at home, school, and church.

The author makes it clear from his introduction that the point of view of his photographs and written verse, although open to other traditions (particularly Buddhism), view the world from inside the walls of liturgical Christianity. And yet, this work is much more than its title, A Pilgrimage of Churches, might suggest. Once art is created, it no longer belongs to the creator. Viewers and readers will see and hear narratives other than the ones intended by words such as these in answer to the Olsburg Bell Tower with an epigraph from Psalm 118 that ends with Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.

            Honoring those who conceived

            A church laid with shingles

            And a sapling once planted

            Grown taller now brushes softly

            Against aged wood to cast shadows

            Where peeling paint and light

            Reflecting from russet autumn

            Leaves catch and enter our eyes

            So that our mind turns gently

            Towards the light where waiting

            In thoughtful simplicity of heart

            The pure stillness and silence

            Of our modest mortal flesh

            Signals an imminent prophet

            Envisioning our healing

            Beyond the ruined places

            Of our human hearts

            Where voices raised in reverence

            Welcome this holy mystery

            Cherished long since childhood

 

Although “open to [all] voices raised in reverence [that] welcome this holy mystery,” this work of image and text, like the builders and congregants of the churches and other edifices photographed, is expressed in ritual—a ritual meaningful to the people of its era and a ritual that held—and still holds—them together, the cultural glue that has loosened in modern and postmodern times. Between photographs, each page begins with a title the author has given the preceding photograph, then a Biblical reference of book and chapter, the liturgical name for the Psalm or passage of scripture, and the key, selected verses. The writer then transmogrifies the scripture to verses that act as an ekphrastic expression of not only the images photographed, but truths that well up from the land and its people. The opening photograph is of the United Methodist Church of Beverly, Kansas. What follows is example of the form of the entire book:

 

IN THIS HOLY HOUSE – SHEKHINAH

PSALM 51       Miserere mei, Deus [Have mercy on me, O God]

11 Create in me a clean heart, O God;

            and renew a right spirit within me.

12 Cast me not away from thy presence;

            and take not thy holy spirit from me.

 

                        We must imagine, beyond                              A divine presence dwelling

                           All our visions—in every                               Within all flesh – as humanity’s

                        Holy House of God                                         Sons and daughters prophesy

 

                        An indwelling, a settling                                In a reconciliation and

                           Of the Holy Spirit – shekinah                         redemption within the world

                        An abundance of light                                    In a name given and exalted

 

                        That rises up                                                   Above every name in heaven

                           As the last darkness                                        Upon and under the earth

                        Passes over humankind                                  Confessed on every tongue

 

                        And transforms all things                               So that we might too

                           Pouring out a radiance                                    Become servants emptied

                        A great reverence                                            Of all presumptions and desires

 

This page opens up not only the book, but the first of four sections: The Great Plains, Smoky Hills of Kansas. The next two sections begin with the same title, The Great Plains, with subtitles of Glacial Hills of Kansas and The Flint Hills of Kansas. Section Two, The Glacial Hills, is noteworthy because it not only contains photos from Easton Township, Kansas, where Starbuck’s ancestors settled, but it also contains, in addition to photos the county’s churches, an intimate look into his heritage with photographs of possibly a distant relatives’ marriage ceremony, the “Family Homestead,” and automobiles of the era, similar to the silver blue 1940s model with whitewall tires where Starbuck rode shotgun while his grandfather drove in the poem, “Marvelous Remembrance”—

            …smell[ing] of aftershave

            Lotion and fresh cigar smoke

            The hood and fenders shimmer[ing]

            And polished with light

            From freshly applied car wax

            Brightly buffed to shine and glow

            As we glowed inside whenever

            We kept company together

            This is the wonderous thing

            About all grandparents

            And aunts and uncles too

            We spoil children in their earliest

            Years—showing them in flashes

            The marvelous wonders

            Of a world without end

            Creating a wonder inside them

            Lasting a lifetime and beyond

            To share with the next

            Generations to be born.

 

            Section IV ends this collection with photos and text commemorating the author’s current location in Houston, Texas: The Great Plains: Houston—Coastal Plains. The first image is of a massive, vaulted archway in the Trinity Episcopal Church, with its cruciform architectural plan, common in Roman Catholic churches in medieval times. The text that follows it is appropriately one of thanksgiving:

“THANKSGIVING PRAISES / PSALM 95 Venite, exultemus (Come let us praise): Come, let us sing to the Lord; / let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation. // Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving / and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.

 

The center of this mixed-media work, is not merely the visual narrative supplied by the photographs and the lyrical responses of the author, following the liturgical rubrics from The Bible, but it is also tied up with the very structure of the edifice of the book itself—a study in darkness and in light, both in the subject of the photos and in the text of mostly lines with three accents, mostly in two columns over two pages, a massive amount of white surrounding them—an analogue of the aspirational and memetic nature of the portrayal of the spiritual milieu of times when these churches were built.

There are no stronger images and text than the ones found on pages 104-107, closing this collection. The image of the interior of Live Oak Friends Meeting [Place], a study in light and shadow of empty pews turned at ninety degrees, facing four windows and doors with light bled out to a brilliant white, showing only faint images outside left to the imagination, opens this series. What I consider to be one of the strongest passages written by Starbuck follows this image. Placed after this, is an image of the same interior of the Live Oak Friends, but from a different angle, followed by the exterior of the building, with clouds, trees, and ground all flowing together to form one organic whole, one body with many parts that all work together—“all work[ing] together for good, to them who love God…” (Romans 8:28), an apt text to describe the structure of this unique work. Here are words taken from the center of Starbuck’s final text:

We do not always know

Until we embrace this calm

            In the absence of dogma and doctrine

            When we step away from ancient

            Creeds and councils cluttering the mind

            The ritual of such reticence becomes

            A sacrament of faith and mercy

            We cannot and may never name

            And yet something unexpected

            Arises from the tranquility resting

            Between and within us now

            On the razor’s edge of light

            We hold with a gentle hope

            Waiting in suspense

            Balanced delicately between

 

            Our binary observations

            And timid choices

            So often obscure[d] now

            In dichotomies of false choices

 

A Pilgrimage of Churches is more than a tour of church buildings of the great plains with text added, it is a catalyst for making sure that we as individuals, communities, and nations, renew our vows, to make the right choices for the sake of our present lives and our future heritage. And it is a gesture of reconciliation between two worlds, the present world with its disintegrating common mythos and values, and the world that Starbuck records in vivid images and stunning diction—a world that not only deserves re-examining, but a world that still offers a mythos and values that this post-modern culture would do well to incorporate into its life. Thus, A Pilgrimage of Churches becomes a necessary book to view and read again and again.


RON STARBUCK is a poet, writer, and the Publisher/CEO/Executive Editor of Saint Julian Press, Inc., in Houston, Texas. Ron’s four poetry collections are There Is Something About Being An Episcopalian, When Angels Are Born, Wheels Turning Inward and, most recently, A Pilgrimage of Churches, a mythic, spiritual journey in verse and photos that crosses onto the paths of many contemplative traditions. 

 His work has appeared in numerous national and international publications, including Parabola Magazine, Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, The Criterion: An Online International Journal in English, The Enchanting Verses Literary Review, ONE, Pirene's Fountain, Glass Lyre Press, Levure Littéraire, La Piccioletta Barca, and The Tulane Review.  A collection of essays, poems, short stories, and audio recordings are available on the Saint Julian Press, Inc., website under Interconnections.

​Forming an independent literary press to work with emerging and established writers and poets, and tendering new introductions to the world at large in the framework of an interfaith and cross-cultural literary dialogue has been a long-time dream. Ron is a former Vice President with JP Morgan Chase and public sector Information Technology — Executive Program Manager with Harris County, Texas. 

Shards of Time by Maryam Hiradfar

 


SHARDS OF TIME, Maryam Hiradfar. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 52 pages, $18 paperback, http://www.saintjulianpress.com

 

Every once in a while, a poet comes along whose poetry teaches one how to read it. I find Maryam Hiradfar’s “Shards of Time” to be in that category. Language that appears on the surface as familiar and with too healthy a dose of abstraction for contemporary American poetry, in reality becomes devotional, contemplative, dare I say liturgical when given a close reading—preferably aloud. “Dawn is loved forever,” from section I (“Torrents at Dawn”), in which the title is repeated as the final line to each of the four stanzas, is emblematic of this description. “Dawn is loved forever”—the line—is composed of three trochaic feet with each of the three stressed syllables an open “ah” or “eh” vowel, giving an acapella, choral effect to its reading. This “ah” vowel sound is echoed throughout the first stanza:

Day is offering

lighthearted as a dove

and plain as the blanket

of morning mist

Dawn is loved forever.

 

 

The language in stanza two enacts its theme of “never-ending” / “forever” with the “eh” vowel providing ample assonance of the middle vowel of “forever” in words scattered throughout: “Quenching,” “moments,” “engulf,” “ever-stretching,” and “ends”:

            Quenching our thirst

            as we revolve

            in the never-ending cycles

            and moments that engulf us

            in their ever-stretching fabric

            pinned between the two ends

            of the revolving horizon

            Dawn is loved forever.

 

The third stanza begins with a line of layered meaning, due to the multiple uses of “passage” as “trip,” “passageway,” and a section of (sacred) “text,” to name a few. The stanza incorporates a blending of the vowel sounds found in the first two stanzas, offering a change of tone, juxtaposed against the stable final line:

           

Yet the passage

            of this beloved orb

            against the infinite landscape

            decorate with time

            prefers now [italics mine] over all history

            and gently puts to rest

            all hopes of juxtaposed dance

            of now and infinity

            Dawn is loved forever.

 

Heavy use is made once again of assonance in the final stanza, along with the half-rhymes or chimes, both at the ends and in the middle of lines (“eclipsed” / “wished,” “stars” / “darkness, “reveal / secrets,” “cold” / “stone,” “falls” / “longs,” “light” / “dives” / “silence,” and “awe” / “Dawn”:

 

            And in its embracing warmth

            moments are eclipsed

            washed out like sand

            the stars wish

            for daytime darkness

            to momentarily reveal

            their long-held secrets

            when the shadow

            of a cold stone falls

            on all that ever longs for light

            and the world dives into silence

            in awe

            Dawn is loved forever.

 

A second poem in section I, (“Fragments of a Breath”) moves the repetition from lines to words and has even more musicality, particularly in its long lyrical passage that makes up the middle two-thirds of the poem, ending in an anaphoric passage enacting our being “…dispersed / through the river currents / ….”

            After the edges of papers

            have turned yellow

            yellow corners curled up

            cover covered with dust

            sheets wrinkled like our skin

            skin turned into dust

            when the ink is dissolved

            and so is our blood

            when the soft flesh is gone

            crows’ sunset feast adjourned

            when we are dispersed

            through the river currents

            on the wings of the wind

            on yellow pollens a bee carries

            in the body of a flower vase

            in the warm blood

            of an albatross flying free

            in the deep blue of a heron’s wings

            in the azure of eyes born anew

            in the breath of a singing robin

 

Even though these lines have no more than 3 accents each, they find room for anaphora, assonance, consonance, simile, imagery, narrative and lyricism. But Hiradfar’s diction does not get stuck in one syntactical mode. In the next poem, “Shards,” we find lines enacting the title with short lyrical narrative thrusts of two strong beats each (“Shards pierce / the flesh of reason / and the mind bleeds”).

            If the reader tires of lyricism and music in Hiradfar’s poems, she only has to keep turning pages and imagistic, narrative poems will appear. “Lunulata” (a venomous, blue-ringed octopus), “The Silent Saxaul Tree,” “Arrow of Time,” “Neowise,” “Violet Night,” Red-Tailed Hawk,” “The Fourteenth,” and “Coyotes” all focus their energy on a narrative that does not compromise their lyrical, musicality—a balance that enacts the center message of this book: a balance between inner / outer; things cosmological / things human; the supernatural / the quotidian; and the abstract / the concrete.

           

Lunulata

 

            Light as a leaf

            stretched as a new canvas

            her body rests on the water

            that has made an offer

            to bear it all

 

            The weight

            and the compression

            the dust and the old scars

            all that there ever was

 

            What remains is a clear frame

            for unfinished brushstrokes

            and half-written words

            buoyant and asleep it floats

            bridging the dark ocean rocks

            and the exploding hearts

            of ancient stars

 

In this compact (52 page) yet capacious first full-length collection, a reader can find a broad range of poems: free-verse, formal, organic, even nonce-forms—those invented forms that convince the reader they have been around forever. “The Quiet Corner” (with an ABAC rhyme scheme) evokes Dickinson (“Come to the quiet corner / where meaning lies bare at rest / come to the center of disguise / to the kingdom of essence, undressed); “The Eternal Companion” personifies doubt (“Walking down below the shadows / looking far across the mind / voice of doubt kneeled and whispered: ‘say it clearly, say it loud’”); and “The Pilgrim” is an incantatory meditation that, after four lines of anaphora resolves into an echo of the early poem of repetition, “Dawn is Loved Forever,” coming full circle like a snake swallowing its tail:

            The Pilgrim

 

            Streams may flow

            ice may grow

            but when let free

            a stone gently

            sinks to the bedrock

            where Peace is still

            where Peace is sane

            where Peace belongs

            where Peace came from

 

            “All seek the Origin”

            All return to Tranquility

            Through torrents at dawn.

 

            Shards of Time defies precise classification in the world of contemporary American poetry. It declares itself out of time and must be read on its own terms—written from a Rumi-esque perspective about life, death, time, eternity, and writing as spiritual practice rather than a memetic art. At the center of Shards of Time is the moment, the continual now, now, now that is meant to be lived, not analyzed, enjoyed, not explained, celebrated, not regretted or anxious about. And yet, a critical analysis of Hiradfar’s work through the lens of Richard Hugo’s maxim about two kinds of poets, leans toward placing her in the category favored by Hugo. In chapter one of The Triggering Town, he states:

            When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two

            attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all

            music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must

            conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your

            job very difficult, and you are not only limiting the writing of

            poems to something done only by the very witty and clever,

            such as Auden…so you can take that attitude if you want…

            but you are jeopardizing your chances of writing a good poem.

 

With many of these poems obviously leaning into their music, rather than into pre-determined truths arrived at independently of the actual writing of the poems, I believe that Hugo would say that Hiradfar has made the correct choice. And her poems are a testimony to that. As readers enjoy the musicality and lyricism of this collection, they will not be able to refrain from looking forward to the evolution of this young poet, to see where the shards of time will lead her.  


Maryam Hiradfar is a poet and writer whose roots can be traced back to the literary landscapes of classical Persian literature. Growing up encircled by the rhythmic verses of classic Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez, plus modern luminaries such as Sohrab Sepehri and Ahmad Shamlou, Maryam became infused with the essence of Persian poetry from an early age.

Amidst her academic pursuits at Harvard, Maryam found a nurturing haven within the Lowell House Poemical Society, where her passion for poetry flourished. This creative sanctuary became the birthplace of her original works and a space to refine her unique voice. Her poetry, which bears the visual imprints of her love for illustration and photography, offers a fusion of imagery and language that resonates deeply.

Roadside, Maryam's first poetry collection, marked a milestone in her artistic journey. She invites readers into her world through her verses and camera lens, offering an intimate glimpse of her perspective. Maryam embarks on a new chapter with her latest creation, Shards of Time (Saint Julian Press, 2023). This collection marries minimalistic graphics with poetic narratives, crafting a mosaic of feelings and moments that transcend the boundaries of traditional expression.