REVIEW: Of This World, by Joseph Stroud. Copper Canyon Press, Washington 2009, 359pp. $18.00 at www.coppercanyonpress.org
Review first published in Book/Mark, Fall 2009
Joseph Stroud is a great poet whose scope is both vertical and horizontal. He goes everywhere and sees everything, noticing insects, birds, animals, trees and flowers, calling them by their names and placing them in their natural settings. He wanders cities, mountains, forests and islands giving us their very presence as though we are standing by his side. He speaks of people, politics, love and war but always in the particular, showing their effects on the landscape and the individual. He supremely communicates the mystical thereness of things, the existential mystery of objects pulsating within their contexts, the spiritual aura surrounding the most commonplace artifacts.
The first section of this compendium of previously published and new works is called Suite for the Common and is composed of six-line, free-verse poems, two to a page. They constitute a perfect introduction to Stroud’s world as they illustrate in miniature, his seemingly endless fascination with all the dimensions of life and all the scenes of the world. My references up to page 44 cover this section. The second section, Passing Through, includes pp. 47-96. The reader intrigued enough to acquire the book may follow page references to the other six sections.
What is the source of that magic whereby Stroud defies the usual surfeit attendant upon reading large doses of poetry? What motivated me to keep turning all 351 pages? As a reviewer, I didn’t need to read the entire book twice to write an appreciation. I persisted because these poems have the intensity and human interest of a great novel. The ingredients Stroud mixes to distill his addictive brew are hypnotic. The recipe includes:
The seamless merging of the natural world with the mystical:
The yellow jacket keeps crashing against the pane
Trying to get out…
To the dead, paradise is the sidewalk you stroll down
Looking in windows, humming, stopping for coffee. p.4
Minute and flawless observations of nature:
Late spring and the nasturtiums are behaving themselves, just poking
Their leaves over the flower box. But I know it won’t be long now—
…soon they’ll make a break for it, soon
the tendrils will bolt across the deck, swarming toward light. p.8
Suddenly there was Ellen’s favorite hen shrieking
and rising into the air clutched in the single talon of a hawk. p.9
rising as blue flames out of the earth. p.21
…Inside the pear there’s a paradise
We will never know, our only hint the sweetness of its taste. p.40
In a half-tomato:
with its bloody seed-shine of canals,
bridges, tiny boats, a labyrinth
surrounding at the center the great palace
of emptiness. p.93
Sinister mushrooms show:
delicate gills, stalks the
color of salmon flesh, odor of storms and autumn.
“Taste And See” p.161
His uncanny descriptions of death as in “My Father Died” p.14:
…There is a great machine
in the blackness that dismantles one moment
from the next. It makes the sound of the heart
but is heartless.
The disillusionment of time as understood by Tibetan monks:
…there’s a festival… where monks
carve the delicate Buddha paradise from blocks
of frozen butter. At dawn, amid the chanting,
among prayer wheels and dragon masks,
is tossed into the fire, and all our butter dreams
rush out in flames.
And the martyrdom in, “Lazarus in Varanasi”.
From a pyre on the burning ghat
a corpse slowly sits up in the flames.
As if remembering something important. p.25
The fatalism of “Reading Joyce in Winter” p. 171:
I can hear snow falling over the Spur
over Burnside and the Hawk
falling across my life
filling the hours the days
where someday I will become
one of the shades
the snow drifting out of the night
Or “Venom” p.195:
The doctor said melanoma
and all the doors into the bright mornings
began slamming shut.
In “Bible” p.202, Stroud symbolizes death through the struggle of living
creatures to survive: “the spider-crab, the field mouse, the snake,
And the heron
is Lord of the Apocalypse stalking across the pool,
choosing and stabbing: This one. That one.
My chosen ones.
Pages 74-89 feature poems written from Vietnam which meticulously
chronicle the language, landscape, artifacts and life of the people.
They also rehearse the shameful tale of the U.S. war against that
country and the long-term scars that remain.
Stroud’s Borgesian forays often explore the reflexive as when, traveling in Europe, fleeing his father’s death, he imagines himself inside Don Quixote and asks for someone to please, “Close the book. Leave me there.” p.15
While viewing Death’s legions massacring the victims of plague in
Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death, he observes:
Like everyone, I search for myself among the living
The ones fleeing, among those trying to escape the canvas. p.15
…The path leads into the woods to the house
where the old woman invites you to admire her oven.
Don’t go! We plead—we who have been cooked
and eaten, we who sit here gripping our forks and knives. p.22
When asked by Robert Bly if he had seen his late friend John Logan in
No, I said. John and I were friends in this life.
And I miss him. I miss him even in my dreams. p.35
“ Homage to the Word-Hoard” p.138, feels like free association
but is a tribute to the power and pathos of language.
“The Old Poets Home” p.140, extols and caricatures old
master poets while lambasting some modern ones.
Vivid tableaux perfectly capture the mood of a moment as in “After
The Opera” p.28. Or in “Reading Wallace Stevens” p.35:
…two does pass through the sunlight
and through shadows between the pines,
disappearing among the colors they are,
appearing among the colors they are not.
“Feral” p.49, is reminiscent of the empty streets of de Chirico.
Stroud describes a plaza in Spain, silent, under a blazing noon
sun, where he sits eating goat cheese, olives, bread and black figs.
He grapples with the confusions of love Five years into his marriage, he thinks he understands love, but as he watches a foreign film that suddenly switches from subtitles to dubbed English, he thought for an instant that he understood Romanian”. p.17
More snapshots of love:
I never saw the oriole in the green leaves, just a flash of gold.
Do you think the morning won’t come when you’ll wake alone? p.38
Hitomaro, weeping, could not sweep
all the leaves falling on his wife’s grave. p.20
The sun pours down honey over the bodies of lovers
who make of their bed a small boat that rocks in the sea
of morning… p.41
The jingling from her anklets stops
Her lover, tired, rolls onto his back
And now the room chimes
with the sound of tiny bells
from the belt around her waist
Versions from Sanskrit & Tamil p.112
“Homage to Doo-wop” p.137, shows how the first awkward slow dance
at a teenage birthday party lead much later to:
…how I would hold the other through the night
and across the years, holding on for love and dear life,
for solace and kindness, learning the dance as we go,
learning from those first, awkward, shuffling steps,
that sweetness and doo-wop back at the beginning.
The poet’s confrontations with human cruelty fill his imagery of the Spanish conquest of the Mayan empire: p.24:
…no priest can read the signs.
…--now these strangers with beards and pale eyes.
Prepare now for whips and fire and blood and sorrow and sorrow.
Similarly, Celan on the holocaust: p.25
Can you find the key for the encryption
of his mother’s execution? How do you write
out of Auschwitz?
…a boot full of brain kicked out in the rain.
Stroud can write a novel in a paragraph. In “Elsewhere” p.218 he sketches his parents’ dysfunctional marriage; in “Knots” p. 219, he portrays his demanding father; in “A Story from the Fifties” a neighbor woman throws stones at her own house and subsequently disappears; in “How Green the Leaves” p.222, a bipolar friend sits in a chair for days with a knife in his lap. Stroud finds a metaphor for the friend’s situation in a plant being slowly consumed by colonies of tiny insects.
The section named Plainsong tells of the poet’s boyhood, his grandfather, his
boyhood friends, experiences with nature, the first kiss,the girl friends, a one-night love affair in North Beach, the end of marriage and, repeatedly, the pleasure of ordinary miracles:
There’s a poetry to this life
no one will be able to write.
The horses come down the mountain at dusk.
We’ve all seen this. But who gives thanks?
The nine poems of Backyard Suite p.257 describe local animals with
microscopic attention to details of color and form. P.277. …with
meadowlarks/ singing on the wires/ the song of one/ entering the song/ of
another. On p.268, “Oh Yes” chronicles the coming of winter and its effects
on body and soul:
…now we’re in for it, everything’s slamming shut,
closing shop, the leaves on the cottonwood are crying
fuck it and letting go in the wind, the cold/ is coming…
Stroud seems to have wandered everywhere always minutely observing and registering the sense of distant lands: Andalucía, Siena, Ayacucho, Kárpathos (and the Greek Isles), Santo Domingo, Samoa, Bali, Vietnam, Machu Picchu, Singapore,
Jalalabad. Here’s a description of the Golden Triangle:
…it’s in the triangle, you know, bandit country, guerrillas, opium
fields, no-man’s land, no borders, you can’t tell if you’re in Laos,
Burma, China, Thailand, Vietnam, nobody knows and nobody
Along with modern poets and thinkers, he has studied poets and works of many different times and cultures: Man’yōshū, Lu Yu, the Kokinshū, Rumi, Lady Izumi, Radulfus Glaber, Issa, Machado, Li Po, Confucius, Praxilla of Sikyon, Han-Shan, Cavafy, Rambaud de Vaqueiràs to name a few.
A translation from the Japanese: p.104
Dawn in the imperial city
I hear the swish of oars
and remember those fishing girls
from long ago
Among Stroud’s most profound works are the “Praise Poems” pp.121-14
It is here, from the perspective of old age, that he flashes upon striking
memories of lovers, friends, nature, and youth while confronting the
imminence of death.
I have tried to suggest the richness of Stroud’s imagery. But the true reward awaits those who obtain the book and discover on every page and every line the magic poetry was created to yield.
We are left with the portrait of a man who loved both the pleasures of home and the strangeness of travel. One who has the sensitivity to appreciate the former and to wonder at the latter. One who celebrates the spiritual mystery of life even as he handles its bare, bloody physicality and expresses it all in poems.