Friday, April 5, 2019

Joan Baranow: In The Next Life

Editor's Note: As of this month, I am the new (sixth) Poet Laureate of Marin County, California. My project for the next two years will be "Poetry as Connection." I intend to serve the poets of Marin by helping them connect with other poets, and with a wider audience and readership. One way of accomplishing that will be to publish reviews of as many books published 2019-2021 by Marin poets, as I possibly can. This is the first in the series--a review of In The Next Life (Poetic Matrix Press, 2019), by Joan Baranow. (See Joan's bio below.)

Like Baranow, many poets take their readers on journeys to other worlds. Melana Morling, for example, in her opening poem to Astoria (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006) begins: "If there is another world, / I think you can take a cab there, / or ride your old bicycle / down Junction Blvd." I love Morling's proximity of transcendence, and how, throughout her collection, she journeys there via the ordinary.

However, in Baranow's new collection, In The Next Life (Poetic Matrix Press, 2019), the poet assures us that we need not even leave our rooms to experience the totality of existence, because all worlds are available through poetry. And the worlds she selects to show us with her poems possess delightful divergencies that are rigorously probed with both the precise language of science and the ineffable language of poetry. In her poem, "Ars Poetica," after exploring the relationship between poetry, prosody, and people ("Why do words, when chimed, make you weep?"), she states:

And so...
(a deft ellipsis brings me back)

to gravity, my theme.
Or beauty? Both, like train cars
coupling, pinky finger-linked for miles.

Pain and joy--
even atoms want their mates.
Though also unpredictable:

nerves, like lightning, have their own agendas.

When there's much to say you close the door.

You type it up then write back into it.

What you're looking for--
a canteen flung in road dust,
a neighbor with a crowbar
splintering the door--

you can't help but swear

somewhere, between the lines, it's there.

Baranow knows about negative capability--Keats's ability to hold two diametrically opposed positions simultaneously--and her poems never forget this capacity either, illustrated above with those  wonderful "train cars...pinky finger-linked," and that "Pain and [italics mine] joy--"

In her opening poem, "Believing," the poet makes it clear that she lines up with modernism, the idea that the solution to humanity's problems lies within humanity's inherent capabilities:

I believe in wrapping the baby in the blanket.
I believe in the father jingling his keys.

I believe in forgiving the one who dented the car,
the daughter who lost her new shoes.

I believe in recess at school, reasonable roads,
neighbors who sleep late on Saturdays,
who lend you eggs for the cake.

I believe in sharing the cake.

I believe in symphonies and rock concerts.
Otherwise, small groups will do--
poetry readings and the like.

I believe in nature's wallop, floodwaters,
wild lilies, the slipperiness of minutes,
the usual moon and tides.

But the poet also makes it clear that she stands in the shadow of Whitman's "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself."

I believe, too, in the mania of the many--
countries counting munitions,
subtracting soldiers from the list.

I believe nothing will change this.
Not prayer, nor uniformed officers.

Peace and terror forever,
like the heart's swell and cramp,
like our wish to rescue the vanishing wolves.

The joy of reading Baranow's poems is found, in part, by experiencing poetry that is connected to the canon, but that also has its own unique metaphorical sensibility, the same kind of sensibility I wrote about in my previous post about Alicia Ostriker and Peter Campion. (See "Poet Pairings: Alicia Ostriker and Peter Campion," 2-10-19.) Her poems are not simply rife with gorgeous metaphors, connecting disparate elements, representing all things in this world in a new light, but Baranow has also created an entirely new world--hinting throughout her book of a "next life" that holds worlds both mimetic and anti-mimetic, where art mimics life, and life mimics art--"a world without edges, reflective, // like looking into a spoon / at your own / estranged features."

At Eye Level

Gnats like being eye to eye,
unlike bees and flies and,
well, most creatures.

On a bench you'll be surprised
by a passing squirrel's
dropped seeds, half an acorn

gnawed through the middle.
A fly might light on
an open book,

but he's otherwise occupied.
Those frogs along the water's rim,
one looking that way,

one another, rest there
like old men
(minus arthritis).

And fish! What do they see
of trees and sky
but a world without edges, reflective,

like looking into a spoon
at your own
estranged features?

Baranow ups the emotional stakes as her poems progress from these tantalizing hints to more direct statements, culminating in the title poem and its neighbors in section three. Witness her investigation into the relationship between the realities of nature and art in "From This Distance:"

An ant clambers onto my sandal,
strikes out across my toe,
is joined by others like water

sucked through a straw.
Is it awe I want to feel?
Am I supposed to know

about these furry-edged leaves
whose berries are bluing?
To my left an aspen snapped

at the waist. Several here
have avalanched
as if with sappy brains

they've judged their own heft
and heaved over. We can't be everywhere
though to touch a particle

alone in space
jars another. Even an eight-year-old
can see the empty swing

sway. But this is simple.
Explain instead the moth's physics,
its unsteady flight

dipping and doubling
back with blind, frenetic tack
though it sees

with fifty more eyes
than ours. What am I asking?
The sun grows the shadows,

I'm tired of the strict music in my head,
"the wind's entreaties,"
which are not the wind's

but my own grief
gasping its speech, poetry's

Distrust. Distrust.
Pick the bee's legs of their pollen.
Thrust your hand down

a snake's throat. Wheel yourself
into the operating room.
Watch how lovingly they scrape

the bodies out. Cough up
something sick. Is this it?
What? Have we finished

gnawing our bones?
Have I?
An ant is dragging

a dead larva
three times its size towards me.
I know that you know that

but I won't stop the words.
They are beating out the --O--
briefest pilot light. Inferno.

In the final two stanzas, the poet's logic is inescapable. Even though she "know[s] that you know that [an ant can drag a dead larva three times its size], [she] won't stop the words." Poetry, and by extension, art, has as much ontological priority, and as much vulnerability to extinction, as the physical world--the "briefest pilot light. Inferno."

But the purpose of these poems is not didactic. Although much can be learned from them, they are not primarily instructive in nature. They celebrate this life--all that it contains--and whatever comes next. Here then is the title poem, "In the Next Life." Read it aloud to experience all of its gorgeous, musical language, allow it to connect previously unconnected synapses, and to reinforce those neural pathways that bring delight and hope!

In the Next Life

You'll slip into the ocean's
inky dungeons, reborn
as a two-ton squid,
or reappear as that same
mosquito you squashed
while hiking through
New Jersey's pine barrens.
You'll feel your should squeeze
into Rush Limbaugh's manic
descendant, a baseball cap
distributor for the northeast coast,
a man who fled home
only to find himself pawning
the slim sliver necklace
his grandmother had given him.
You might be snow packed
into a girl's acrylic mitten
or a taste bud
as she licks the snow.
You may wince while clipped
from the dictator's mustache
or shine in the small
jar of polish his wife likes.
If asked, I'd choose something
simple, more mute
than my present incarnation,
to return as a wild strip
of loosestrife I glimpsed once
while riding up front in a truck,
or else a June bug
stuck to a screen, mating.
I'd like to try being
a breeze that touches the hot
cheeks of a bawling infant,
to enter her lungs
and cool the cramped
muscle of her heart.
Think of it--someday
your flesh will feed
stinkbug and jewel weed.
may your spirit tumble
in the moist tower
of a troublesome

Joan Baranow is the author of Living Apart and two poetry chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, Spillway, and elsewhere. A VCCA fellow and member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, she founded and directs the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA. With her husband, David Watts, she produced the PBS documentary HealingWords: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary, The Time We Have, presents an intimate portrait of a young woman facing terminal illness.


granddaddy said...

Your revealing of these Marin County poets reveals a Marin County lode of poetic imagery and language. Your introduction to Baranov's poems invites us into the rich veins of her internality and the deep expanse of her vision.

Terry Lucas said...

Thanks, Granddaddy! And thanks for the private points, as well. I appreciate feedback!