Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Two Poets

I have blogged about the Mercer Street Bookstore before. I cannot pass this bookstore without going in. Over at the left, against the wall, are many books of poetry, wonderful slim volumes by wordsmiths who are devoted to the power of poetry, the richness of language that sculpts special worlds for the imagination. Most of these are poets I have never known, so each volume is a discovery, an opportunity to enter a domain of original perception and expression. Of one thing I am certain: these books exist because their authors have a special conviction that their poetry has an audience. They believe in their work. Their passion is almost palpable as I leaf through their intimate, personal narratives.

Last week I ducked into the bookstore to get out of the rain and came across two poets, each quite different; each quite original. Jenny Browne, a poet from Texas, explores words and spacings on the page in The Second Reason (2007, The University of Tampa Press). Her poems are meant to be seen as well as heard. The Cold Panes of Surfaces (2006, Nightwood Editions, Canada.) by Chris Banks, a poet from Ontario, is a strikingly original work that is well worth contemplation when time is of no concern.

Neither of these volumes are meant to be read in a hurry. You need to savor the work. Don't bother trying to read the poems quickly or in the order published. Flip through the pages. Let the poems choose you. Don't worry. They will.

Browne's book seems to fall open to page 13, a poem that speaks to many of my sleepless nights:

I own a picture of all the holes
in the skull, the names
between bones.

Between tones some alarm clocks
shine a flashing
moonbeam in your eye.

As the cuckoo flies
this is rush hour
in a tumbleweed.

I count bowling balls,
all the holes too small.
Every release a slam-

dance down the run(away).
Oh bones of rain
this wet wood won't burn.

This the kind of dance
you'd wrap around your neck.
until the blister of your brain

swells into the belly of a biker
in the bleachers. He mimes
the guitar solo, mouths the chorus:

And this bird you cannot change
And this bird you cannot change
And this bird you cannot change
Powerful images, compelling rhythms, hypnotic and obsessive.

Leafing through Banks' book finds a poem that celebrates my own obsession of winter and snow:
The wise man avenges by building his city in snow.
-Wallace Stevens

The architecture of snow was quietly rebuilding January
when a young woman arrived, seeming to float down
the white sidewalks while the rest of us huddled inside
our mortgaged houses. I had been staring out my windows
watching snow fall from the invisible eaves. Passing cars
were churning up a slurry in the streets, a wet papier mâché
of burnt-out stars. She wore a red scarf and had carefully
cinched her wings beneath a cashmere navy waistcoat.
When she turned to look at me, the world was all whirlwind
and white ash, and the words, Winter is the only afterlife.
It gives back everything it takes from us, blazed for a moment
across my brain, like a lantern shining out in all directions,
which was when I knew for certain it was her, and only
for that moment, the white light of snow falling across
her shoulders, itself, a kind of blessing, as she stepped
lightly between this world and the hereafter, one minute
smiling at me and the next vanishing into an apocalypse
of snow, each flake's white galaxy, her grace her own.

Elegant, eloquent, and expansive. Images float through my brain like falling snow. Chris Banks is an original voice. A great find.

A great find, with many others waiting. What delicious prospects lay ahead in that goldmine of forgotten volumes, hiding unorganized and often anonymous and obscure. In the Mercer Street Bookstore I sometimes feel like a prospector, mining precious ore. It is difficult to know what other treasures may be buried in the poetic debris, waiting to be discovered some rainy afternoon. Just now a flash of insight whispers that actually the poems discover me.

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