Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Other World

The Brighter House, Kim Garcia

Bright Scythe, Tomas Tranströmer (trans. Patty Crane)

I was reading Tranströmer's Bright Scythe when Kim Garcia's The Brighter House arrived in the mail.  I have always enjoyed reading poets in tandem, looking for points of comparison--it's a way of concentrating that has enhanced my understanding of poets who are otherwise too difficult. Tranströmer, for example, sometimes eludes me:


The silent rage scribbles on the inward wall.
Fruit trees in bloom, the cuckoo calls out. 
This is spring's narcosis. But the silent rage
paints its slogans backwards in garages.

We see all and nothing, but straight as periscopes
handled by the underworld's timid crew.
It's the war of minutes. The broiling sun
stands over the hospital, suffering's parking lot.

We the living nails hammered down in society!
One day we'll come loose from everything.
We'll feel death's air under our wings
and be milder and wilder than we are here. 

A couple of years of Old English allow me to make out a word here and there, enough to see that Patty Crane has followed the poet's intentions closely--"hanterade av underjordens skygga besattning"--aside from the syntax, this is the line, word for word. So what is Tranströmer up to here and in poems like "Ljuset Strommar In" ("Light Streams In") that end with this typical apocalyptic twist: "The countdown has begun."  Or "Winter's Glance" with its "Then suddenly I'm struck by a chill from far away./The moment darkens/and remains like an ax scare on a trunk." One doesn't expect Swedish poets to offer sun-drenched, Mediterranean imagery. I know Kierkegaard was Danish, but I can't help but think of SK when reading something like "An icy wind in my eyes and the suns dance/inside a kaleidoscope of tears..." ("The Crossing Place").  The theology of dimly-lit churches, pale Calvinism, black trees, blowing snow, the way I felt when I first watched "Persona"--dazzled by my incomprehension of what Bergman was about.

But then Tranströmer also writes poems that are as transparent as an icy window: "We are the earth," he writes in "Sketch in October," yes, of course. Or the beautiful poem "The Station," a simple series of declarative statements that end with the injunction to "remember this" moment of clarity, the man hitting the wheels of the train with a maul, a "round-the-world sound/that lifts the whole train and the regions wet stone." ("varldsomseglarklang").  But with these poems one must think of a parallel world, a magic world where every simple thing is made simpler, where the poet sees through objects and events, into the heart of things. "The sun lies low now./Our shadows are goliaths./Soon shadow is all." What seems mysterious is what we don't attend to. Tranströmer writes fairy tales, poems of revelation that are, despite the rich imagery, primarily about ideas. Bergman might not be a bad comparison, but Tranströmer is lighter on his feet, never morose--yes there are lots of shadows to be found, but they aren't emblems for existential emptiness--the sun is going down, that's all. 

Kim Garcia's The Brighter House uses Tranströmer's prose poem "Madrigal" as an epigram: "I inherited a dark forest where I seldom walk. But there will come a day when the dead and the living change places." 

Garcia writes poems that are unique, but call to mind some of Tranströmer's penchant for fairy tales--here's Garcia:

In My City of Z, Forgiveness

In the City of Z. I was scarred--three lines, sternum to solar plexus.
They wept and festered and would not heal. How else can you be beautiful?
asked the angels of that place. I had hope for something more

than my own body handed back to me, still barren, still bargaining.
My mouth was stuffed with manioc. My belly gave up its worms,
still I would not abandon the pictures hope twisted from my dreams.

They threatened to crush my skull, to feed me to the fish. I pressed
small children for a word of the world in the other country, a physics
of speech not equal but opposite. So they teased me with nonsense,

birdsong, their own alliterative names made strange by my longing
to speak strange, be strange, all at once familiar, while my abdomen
bloomed--egg-laying insects, boring to blood, unhinging the last bone.

I kept a final word under my tongue, belligerent child. Shook my head.
I didn't want to. Wouldn't. Not even silence could enter my lips, gentle
as she was. I had paid my way cross-river. I had to be worth something. 


I won't mention Tranströmer again, as this is a consideration of Kim Garcia, but keeping the two volumes side-by-side on my desk, making notes in each one, comparing lines and poems is instructive--not only did I read the Swede with greater clarity, I understood, I think, what Ms. Garcia had set out to do.

Garcia's poems are mythical in content and subject matter ("And in the beginning was all the after," "Thor," "Miracle," "Rumpelstiltskin," etc.), that is, they aspire to locate the unchanging in the everyday, or work in the opposite direction by finding the quotidian in the mythical ("The Little Golden Books," especially "The Toad Princess"). In many cases, the crossing over from the realm of feeling to thought involves violence or violation. Indeed, The Brighter House is full of images of blood and violence in something like the way Transtromer's poems are packed with images of death. How else can one be born or reborn but in blood--I was wondering about religious influences in the two poets, Garcia's fleshy Catholic icons and Transtromer's rather more bloodless (but far more somber) Protestantism--well, I can't claim much for this line of thought since I know nothing about the poets' backgrounds or beliefs. 

In both poets' work I felt the urge to tear away the illusions of simple perception--there is always something else that we are called upon to attend in "the mystic crucifixion by Tintoretto," a poem about doubling experience, hiding one meaning inside another. Isn't this what fairy tales do, what magic is about, what the best poetry is up to? Not in the trivial sense of direct reference to another meaning, but in the subtle way that a good poem is read with both with the consciousness of what it says and the sense that it is also saying something else--you need to pay attention--but still something important remains elusive. A mystery, or a Mystery--glorious, sorrowful. Yes, this thought occurred to me more than once as I read Garcia--she was inviting me to do a little extra work: "I was, as you said, very strange/ Pale and larval, like something flayed." Not a line I'll soon forget. ("Unicorn and Virgin: Cloisters Tapestries"). This one feels like a prayer. Others feel like magical invocations, talismans ("You're All the Gods to Me"). Or, "Oil." This one walked around with me for a full day, like a melodic line from Miles's "Autumn Leaves,"my favorite November record--"And death never caught me, / easy as I was to catch."

Garcia has a fine sense of the twists and turns of feeling, of fear especially, but also of affection--here's a few examples from The Brighter House of her fetching ability to catch us up in her world: "The weight of the water at the bottom of the sea crushes the air out of/our bone. It is a desert, an endless overabundance of just one thing." ("Tales of the Sisters: Atlantis)--I love the simplicity of "just one thing," an anti-climax after the forbidding crushing of the air out of our bones.  "So awkwardly arranged that she must walk with one hand extended/like the blind, anticipating touch in a world full of surface" this is brilliant, but it gets better: "balancing a bucket of lake water half as heavy as she is, a strange S curve/in the spine, torqued." That last word: it snaps the line and reader to attention: the miraculous girl weighted down, bent, reaching ahead to feel the air like a blind person, torqued. ("Miracle"). Such a simple act, a little story of fish head and a racoon, but Garcia, mythographer, turns the whole into something richer, an illusion, a miracle. I enjoy the idea of seeing life constantly brushing up against the surreal, the unreal, the miraculous: 

Early Morning

As though my lover placed his cold, chapped hand
against the soft tissue under my ribs, stopping my breath.

As though that silence were in incision
I could step through. [!] Foot-lifted, hand in the flame.

Or as though we were sparrows hopping on the garage roof,
the trees dripping, piercing the gray with silver needles.

A pink magnolia holding up palm after palm of blessing.

One could write "My lover..." "That silence," "We were," but the speculative tone created by "as though" evokes a meditative mood, as if the poet were asking herself what this moment of early morning was it this, or that? All of those things, and none of them--and Garcia knows enough not to ruin the mood by pinning anything down; best of all, the vivid image at the end. You've seen it, the magnolia leaves rustling like palms (of hands, of Palm Sunday, the ambiguity of the palms strewn before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem for the last time--a blessing with menace). 

Well, that's what poetry does. Words strewn about don't make a poem, nor does prose clipped into stanzas. There has to be a sensibility at work, but not only that, a sensibility whose intimacy isn't only with the world or with language, but with both at once. Too much poetry that I read is simple code, autobiography disguised with imagery and inference. The best poetry (my opinion) feels unaffected, comes to us as a consistent way of seeing and feeling, one that we don't merely observe, but share. The language of creation. 

From an earlier collection: one of my favorite poems:


Between twilight and twilight the muddle-sleep of fear
with a head against a stranger's shoulder. Every bomb
every bullet is coming towards you, every hand holding
a detonator. A jolt in the road, and it's all over. Where am I?
A battlefield is home compared to that place. Then, it's day.

A buddy is sprawled on the bench seat, mouth raw, agape.
Tenderness. Maybe bombs are outside waiting, but here
a bit of morning comes through dirt-smudged windows.
The driver swigs coffee from a flask. He's driven all night
while you slept helpless. A flood of thanks, before thinking,

at the back of his head. The windshield is full of blue sky.
The drones will be out, Bethlehem stars, clearing the way.
You let the thanking in, the melt where fear was, blood warm.
Give into it, like you give into the truck’s shake through
your bones, like whiskey. Let it soak your parched ground.  

 George Ovitt (12/3/2016)

Kim Garcia's award-winning The Brighter House is available from White Pine Press--their link is on this page.

Bright Scythe is available from Sarabande Books, Louisville, Kentucky, here:

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