Sunday, July 13, 2014

REVIEW: by Martin Abramson
SPLITTING HARD GROUND
By Marilyn Stablein
La Alameda Press
Albuquerque, New Mexico
$12.00, 78 pp. Paper

With permission of Book/Mark a Quarterly Small Press Review.
                                          Issue: Winter/Spring 2012

                        To this reviewer, Marilyn Stablein’s m├ętier is essentially prose poetry. Almost any of her poems would read quite reasonably as paragraphs. But they wouldn’t be nearly as good. The author is very deliberate about linage, spacing, phrasing, enjambment and other factors that affect which words we read, the order in which we read them and their cumulative impact. Her metric deliberations make a world of difference.

                             At the burning ghat
                             bodies hover atop wood
                          stacked four feet high.
                          The eldest son lights the pyre.

                           Each line, brief and concise, gives us another essential detail. Each detail delivers a separate impact. Then in line 4, a culminating trope of greater significance is accorded greater metric scope. The next three stanzas describe the hunger of the flames which consume first the red silk coverings and then the limbs. Scavengers comb the ashes for gold fillings. Finally “an old woman /sadhu…steals a burning log” to boil her rice, which sets the stage for two lines of stunning force:
                                       Only Mataji cooks
                                    with bones of the dead.

                             Reading SPLITTING HARD GROUND, one easily forms the impression of a Beatnik poet wandering the courts and alleys of the world. From New York to Nepal; from Juarez to Varanasi; from Kathmandu to far-flung, unnamed rivers and seashores. In “Transient,” she speaks of a time when “A backpack is my pillow…Roadmaps are talismans…” and continues, “I’ve been gone so long/ one year thrusts into another/ like snowdrops in a winter’s thaw…No one recognizes me/  I’m a transient in my home town”.

                                Everywhere she goes, the naturalist-poet collects the detritus of wildlife and civilization.

                                         These carapace shells, dried seed
                                         pods, and red earth fill glass jars
                                         in my studio. Assemblages house
                                         aged bones, skulls, bugs, dismembered
                                         doll’s limbs. River rocks, wild herbs…

                                    When a friend gives her a partially de-fleshed hog’s head, she sets it out to cure “in a humid New York summer…” Three years later, the skull still cures.
                                         In different ways, each of these poems celebrates the seasons, the sensuous profligacy of gardens or the quiet pleasures of winter evenings. And the most moving of them conflate the fertility of nature with memories of a dead son, an avid gardener. In “Heirloom,” a seed catalog once sent to her son ignites memories:

                                                By a pinion fire I dream
                                                of summer, peaches simmer
                                                on the stove.
                                                                        …I’ll plant
                                                 A garden for you, Mom.
                                                 In the backyard.”

The simple pathos of these poems is overwhelming.

                                                On top of the bookcase…
                                                            wrapped in a delicate
                                                Japanese silk scarf, hand painted
                                                with scenes of cranes and curly
                                                foam tipped waves, rests Willie’s box.

                                                Wild pheasant feathers gathered
                                                In the woods and a few shells decorate the top.
                                                Is it a present or an art work?
                                                my poet friend Janice asks.
                                                My son’s ashes, I tell her,
                                                I like to keep him near.
                                   
                                    “The Water Carriers” is dedicated to Willie.

                                                All love is memorable.
                                                Some only for the pain.

                                    It’s a six-part poem centered on various forms of water. Walking in the surge at the Bay of Fundy, the poet meditates on how “…the first {surge of love} sets a precedent to measure by “even though a lifetime is but a blink of Brahma’s eye”. Part 3 is a moving hymn to the lost child.

                                                Water blasts ahead
                                                pounds the earth, shreds
                                                my heart to bits of
wayward shells, knotted
kelp, stranded sea creatures.
                                               
                            “The Sorrow of Captivity” provides graphic details of Morocco, Marrakesh and villages in the Atlas Mountains not likely to be found in travelogues. The poems tell of thieving ravens, mice and monkeys in locales like Benares where “I recycled everything” and olive oil was poured in empty beer bottles. Ms. Stablein takes us on scavenger hunts in poems like “Salvage” where she finds memories among treasures in trash bins: a Mexican hat; a hippie tie-dyed dress; two baskets; a garden trellis and an “aviator’s scarf like the one Peter/ loved me in…so Isadora Duncan…”
                              And we too find treasures amid the travel journals and bric-a-brac of an adventurous and often painful life: deep memories; exquisite imagery and graceful music. The physical book itself rewards us, set in Perpetua typeface and neatly packaged by La Alameda Press between glossy covers with a stunning photo of the Rio Grande Gorge on the front. SPLITTING HARD GROUND delights and saturates all our senses. Enthusiastically recommended.