The Moon’s Soul Shimmering on the Water by Doug Stone , reviewed by Erik Muller

Self-published book, 2018, 53 pages, $12.00

ISBN 978-1724418180

Available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

To write 21st century poems in the manner of 20th century English translations of Chinese poems by Ezra Pound or Gary Snyder may seem an affectation  ­– I use this word knowing that I, too, write this way. In Doug Stone’s second collection,  however, the manner becomes a means to realize poems on important themes and to create a distinctly imagined world.

Here are many props of Chinese originals: lots of moon, a cup not a glass of wine, a hut, a well, fishermen, an old woman packing firewood, a small fire burning to ash. Central is the white-haired old poet, accurate to Doug Stone of Albany.

The question is, What can the poet make of such materials?

The book’s title suggests these are reflective poems, and the poet speaker is a fine companion through the changes of seasons and daily routines, even the impacts of war. He sits, gazes, sips his wine. He accepts calmly a scene that is not particularized by a local name, yet is specified by image:

Heavy fog has rubbed the landscape away.

(“First Morning of Spring”)

Thunder cracks like storm-snapped pines.

(“Catching Snowflakes in My Wine Cup”)

A brood of baby rabbits shiver in the rib cage

of a horse where his heart should be.

(“Another Battlefield”)

If you’ve read Chinese translations, you’ve felt a general effort at the calm unfolding of sequences that begin with external observation and move to the speaker’s state of mind, which is allied with the description. The three sections of “Autumn Reflections of an Old Poet” illustrate this, two of them beginning, “From my window.” The distant hill, which the poet describes in moonlight, is where he earlier wrote poetry, yet he now assures himself “new poems are just / another cup of wine away.” Watching crows for hours “preen away / crusted blood until they shine,” the poet wonders

What is it about my life

that I find beauty in a flock

of polished crows?

Sharing wine in the third section, he listens as his friend speaks of his wife:

Each time he says her name

something flickers in his eyes

like a flame wakened

in a bed of straw.

Friendship is a theme in the poetry Doug Stone emulates. The book’s last section makes a startling leap: it presents his original poems as an exchange between the great Du Fu and Li Bai. This is as daring as adding several more sonnets to the Shakespeare canon! The book has prepared for this to be credible, to complete Stone’s imaginative grasp of a world. Here are traditional moments in Chinese poetry: poems of parting, of reading the distant friend’s poems, of receiving the traveler’s answer, of recalling the long-dead friend while pausing at the sound of a death knell.

These poems sound accurate given what little we know of these poets’ friendship. Du Fu whispers his friend’s poems

to the willows who recited

them to the crickets, frogs, and nightingales.

How they sang the night alive with your words!

(“When I Read You New Poems Tonight”)

In straits, Li Bai reports, “My donkey skuffs a skiff of snow / for the last sweet blades of grass.” (“These Withered Autumn Wastes”) Years later, Du Fu laments his friend’s death, consoled by memories of youth spent together and by “the moon’s soul shimmering on the water, / the soul Li Bai was trying to gather in his arms.” (“Du Fu: On the Death of Li Bai”)

Doug Stone’s first book, The Season of Distress and Clarity  (Finishing Line Press, 2017), supplied some of the strong Chinese-inflected poems included in the second. That book ranged across several of the poet’s interests. It touched upon Russian writers, U.S. cities, and desert and ocean – usually not part of Chinese lyrics. Close to home were the hard drinking and driving found in persona poems of his actual, though imagined, Albany. So, Doug Stone’s new work can resume any of these. Whatever material this poet elects to write about, he will surely use it in an imaginatively compelling way.

Biography

OPA Board member Erik Muller is a poet living and working in Eugene. His book of essays Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets was published by Mountains and Rivers Press, 2017.

Before Dreaming: Poems by Arn Strasser, reviewed by Gigi Cooper

Before Dreaming

EPSON MFP image

by Arn Strasser

 

Budding Branch Books, an imprint of Asher & Merriman Publishers

ISBN# 978-0-9841874-1-6

2015, 89 pp., $19.95

www.buddingbranchbooks.com

 

Before Dreaming almost is correct; Between Dreaming would be accurate. Arn Strasser’s collection investigates the interaction between the dream state and wakefulness. He approaches the enigma of the dream world with both wonder and dread, exploring the boundaries between living and dead, youth and age, adventure and solace. Without magniloquence, he takes the reader on a journey from as close as the dining room and sofa to the markets and shores of Sardinia.

For Strasser, sleep is not a separate condition, but a way to access both memories and the future. Dream and memory inextricably intertwine in the book, most literally in the penultimate set of poems

called “The Wanderers.”

 

  1. Night

… so we may wander

the landscapes

of our dreams … .

 

these constellations of our

desires, a twilight of

remembrances.

 

  1. Awakening

Do you hear

voices

of the dead,

 

who speak in memory … .

 

In this book, memories are more permanent than transitory life, but they are frustratingly unreliable and elusive. Several poems in the collection are lamentations — an effort to conjure and recapture that which is lost, which here is undiminished memories. The strongest poems are these first-person meditations.

I am trying, trying to bring you forward

even to see your eyes

but the song the song, I remember.

(“Your Irish Heart”)

Dreams in fact may substitute for memories. As for sleep, on the one hand, one suffers from an unstated fear of not waking (“A European Sets the Table”) from the dreams [that] are the dark energy of the night (“Silence Room”). On the other hand, the author looks forward to the repose of wandering, even though a dream is a creature of wonderment, longing and fear” (“Before Dreaming”).

Gardens, and fruit in particular, like dreams, serve as a mechanism for looking into the past and connecting to the present. “The Fig Tree” conjures a couple from “long ago”:

she feels the strength of truth

and when he hands her a fig

she bites deeply into the dark skin

Ripening fruit is a persistent theme, with poems featuring ripe plums, cherries, apricots, figs, olives, and apples. Ripeness is that perfect, ephemeral moment before a dream ends, before a memory fades.

While Strasser’s poems focus little on meter – and only one rhymes – he uses anaphora and refrain effectively and extensively, as in do not be afraid in “The Prayer.” The less compelling poems are descriptive landscapes such as “The Beach at Manzanita.” When tackling love, Strasser falters, verging on cloying recitations of emotions.

The “Three Tales” that close the book are a humorous departure. In the first, the writer worries needlessly over a cat. The second is a hilarious take on the contemporary preoccupations and proclivities of the Greek gods. Appropriately, the final poem finds an insomniac hotel guest sarcastically entreating boisterous Rome to keep him awake, ending the collection in a flourish.

Whether reflecting on a lifetime or invoking a generation past, the reader will not find answers here, but will find:

a tenderness, a kindness of

strangers, the milk of gracious

laughing, laughing.

(“Along the Path of Sycamores”)

 

Reviewer Bio:

Gigi Cooper is a transportation and environmental planner and writer in Portland. Her poem “Field” was an honorable mention in the Spring 2013 OPA contest.

Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast: Poems by Quinton Hallett, reviewed by Alan Contreras

Uttered Chaos, 2015, 74 pages, $10

 

ISBN 978-0988936645

 

Available via Amazon

 

Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast is one of the most complex and carefully layered collections of poetry that most of us will ever read. I wondered, when I saw the title, whether this was a feminist restatement of Woody Allen being chased over the cinematic hills by a forty-foot mega-mammary. Hallett has a spiky sense of humor (in previous collections she asked Joan of Arc “what’s at stake” and had scientist Rosalind Franklin refer to DNA Nobelists Crick and Watson as “that base pair”), but I could not see her devoting poetic energy to such a project.

 

I then speculated whether Hallett, a noted gold-panner of human subtlety, had found some connection with physicist Erwin Schrödinger, whose hypothetical Cat that can be assumed simultaneously dead and alive has become well-known. Yes, it’s that Mrs. S., one Anny, apparently a woman of social vigor and marital flexibility. The poet’s connective tissue, set forth with glowing clarity in a short, moving “Afterword,” was her own potential cancer. This collection is built around potential: that which may or not be.  A more macabre or less serious poet might have called the collection Cat Scan.

 

What Hallett has done is build a triple helix of her own experience, the life of Anny, and the theories of Erwin. This allows her to use the device of Erwin Schrödinger’s uncertain Cat, particularly for the many poems that are part of the main themes. We not only follow the unique circumstance of waiting for news of a biopsy in “Deadlock,” but we find frequent visions in these poems – sometimes in the path, sometimes in the mirror – of alternatives: things that may or may not happen, or exist.

 

Let’s look at “Deadlock” in its entirety.

 

Pre –

 

Under a tarnished sky, one moss-freighted limb

 hunkers like a pathologist over the road to the lab

 

 A petri dish is tonged from its stack

 a left breast, unpowdered, awaits its probe

 

 The pet cat wandered off a week earlier,

 climbed into a box at the neighbor’s

 

 

Post –

 

The pathologist swivels her microscope

dice are in mid-roll, coin’s in the air

 

Results = Pending

 

Crest and trough

holding heavy the simultaneous upshots

 

  The marked breast is carried to bed,

  patted down under the press of blankets

 

  The old cat’s dreamt alive

 

  Regardless of outcome, every passage underneath

  the laden maple will be a new snag in the chest

 

What weight on two words and a symbol: Results = Pending. These words are the mirror image of the Cat That (Is/Not) Dead, reflected inside the poet’s body. Results = Pending carries the weight of the potential of cancer on a yin-yang fulcrum – an equals sign, less than a word but in this poem so much more – in the center of the poem. The discerning eye might add a flickering arrow pointing each way.

 

This is poetic art at the highest level. It is the considered benchwork of a master crafter.  Like a maker of swords, she adds how many layers? How many folds? How much flex here, and there? How many directions or outcomes? What will cause the balance to shift one way or another? I can’t help but think of James Merrill’s masterpiece “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace,” in which  … the sword that, never falling, kills … hangs over the bed of his friend, the Dutch poet Hans Lodeizen, whose pending death everyone in the room notionally denies.

 

How many of these poems are really about the mammiform protuberance in question? The answer – the uniquely suitable and beautifully surprising answer – is: it depends. It depends on the reader, in some cases. We find what we wish to find or are capable of finding. I may find something you do not, and vice versa. Hallett has always been a master of experience-oriented, multi-layered human life, both daily and profound. Here, we have at least two stories running simultaneously through a sizable, varied, and robust assemblage of poetry. Included is a series of poetic miniatures that refer more or less expressly to the titular breast, as well as some larger works.

 

There are other poems in this collection that allow us to sense that the Cat of Destiny is/isn’t in the room. Here is one of the Anny poems that do not have individual titles as they form a sort of bubbling rivulet flowing through the collection:

 

Anny Schrödinger has adventures

in marital architecture with Erwin and Hilde.

She/they are jealous or not jealous.

An affair or no affair? Without seeing the lover as lover,

there is no possibility of betrayal.

 

And another:

 

Mrs. Schrödinger’s breast has no standard cup size.

Is the cup half full or half empty?

Handful or sweaterful, a more fitting gauge.

To measure or contain is an insult

if volume is ever to be increased or diminished.

 

This particular poem recalls the late Hannah Wilson’s poem “The White Sweater” about a long-gone sweater that once may have overemphasized teenage breasts, but now, if replaced, might fit again because those breasts have been removed. Wilson, a friend of Hallett’s, was my high school English teacher forty-odd years ago: a circle quietly closes.

 

There is more to this collection than Anny Schrödinger or allusions to her husband’s invisible feline. When I first read through it, I thought perhaps all of the Schrödinger material should be in one section and all of the unrelated poems in another. Yet what, after all, does “unrelated” mean? We see many connections; some we may not see.

 

A few of the poems have a somewhat more casual feel to them, but a couple that seem a little too light at first develop a Merwinesque tone on careful re-reading. In these more delicate poems, there is someone in the whispering gallery; the ferns move in the breath of no wind. The collection includes poems written in a variety of layouts – I’m not sure “forms” is quite the right word in this context.

 

The collection begins with “Self-Portrait as a Bruise,” a poem that is not really part of the core “story” of the collection (or is it?), but which is such a precise, tightly wound coil of meaning that I will close with its last six lines here. (You’ll have to buy the book for the full experience.) This poem is one of Hallett’s all-time best, a garnet mine of meanings and ideas compressed into a single work.

 

Thumb-print or thunderhead,

my longing will never be taken

for love, though it is similar

 

in the way it uses quiet fury

to aggravate intention

and pools with me in one place far too long.

 

Quinton Hallett has always found good stories about us, as people, to share via her poetry. That’s true of many poets. Few take such care in folding their word-layers to make swords worthy of the title craft master. Such work is revealed to us in Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast. Did I see St. Julian of Norwich, patron saint of cats, leaning down from her stained glass to have a closer read? Maybe. Felis ex Machina.

 

Also by Quinton Hallett: Refuge from Flux (2010), Shiver, Quench, Slake (2004) and Quarry (1992).

 

Reviewers Bio

Alan Contreras is author of the poetry collections Night Crossing and Firewand. His collection In the Time of the Queen will appear in 2018. He is co-editor of Birds of Oregon (OSU Press 2003), author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding The American West (OSU Press 2009), Northwest Birds in Winter (OSU Press 1997), State Authorization of Colleges and Universities and other titles. He is editing a collection of essays about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and will soon begin work on a history of Oregon ornithology. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Eugene.