Poetry for Southern California
By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
THE HEAVEN OF NEVER BEFORE
Book by Carine Topal
Moontide Press (www.moontidepress.com)
Carine Topal’s In the Heaven of Never Before is an amazing book of poems about the continuity of life. The book covers birth, death and everything in between. The book is divided into three sections, which might (simplistically) be called Birth - Life - Death. But it is not so simple. Many of the poems in the first section deal with what comes before, and many in the third section, with what comes after. Birth is a beginning, but not THE beginning; likewise death is an ending, but not THE ending. What is important is history, which runs through everything. There’s family history, and there is the history of language.
Many of the poems in the first section deal with Topal’s son and his birth. But the very first poem, “From This,” (p. 13), introduces the deeper theme of family and history:
I come. From kraut, potato field, radish and iris bulbs
burrowed from the tundra; from china cups and money
bags left at the pier when Hitler called.
She also goes back to the original beginning, Adam and Eve, in “Of Man, Woman, Snake, Fruit,” and forward to her own death in “Packing for Rain.”
The second section is poems about life. These are all tight, prose poems which explore the various pleasures of life, especially desire. Her son returns, showing the simple joy of life, in “What My Son Sees” (p. 37), where she writes:
I’m memorizing agony while my son points out this sudden wide field of grass; the hundreds of cows covering it like a country quilt. Every inch a cow, he whispers, then points to the mounds of freshly cut hay and the two men he says are cowboys. Sometimes I think how life drags itself out of the living. Then restores what it can. This is what we give our children, the dry straw of fall waiting to be baled.
The third section contains poems eulogizing her brothers, mother, father and other relatives. These poems are tender, appreciative, loving. Again, however, life goes on. From “How It Begins” (p. 49):
It ends in a field, someone telling a hushed truth, because the ears still take in what the eyes cannot. Because the fingers of the living move an errant hair from the eyes of the other for one more look. And we, being mothers, watch still for wolves.
But this is only the surface of this book. In the Heaven of Never Before is also about language, and how it too has a history. Just as a family’s history is contained in every member of the family, so every word carries its history with it. A family member may have an identity, but that identity expands to include all its ancestors. Likewise, a word has a meaning, but still contains all the words and meanings which came before.
It starts with naming (the birth of a word). In the Heaven of Never Before contains numerous poems about naming. In “Frugal Repast” (p. 14) Topal writes, “I am teaching my son how to name things carefully/ so that nothing goes unnoticed.” Late in that poem she says, “I can name what they want, he says,/ thinking that naming desire diminishes need.” In “Of Man, Woman, Snake, Fruit” (p. 17) she writes:
And he named himself
First man of adamah,
to have the fruit, seed
to pluck from the tree
of more than one apple
traceable to the blossom
of all things.
And the whistle
of a thing
called bird. Tzipoor.
And the hiss and rattle of thing
muscling its way
Then, once named, words start to expand, to quickly become more than their original meaning. Take the poem “Tocar” (p. 43):
To touch with intention, to excite, to sow the seed, to root, to romp, to fondle, to fumble, as in, what did you do? (what have you done?) As in take me, dance beneath the sky of all things, in the red nest of feathers, along this coast, so long, adieu, my tattooed love, shirt off down the eagled back of you, the hairless nape in my hand, and the indestructible rest of you—so long I’m here saving my days, wind in my hair, hair like the crows’ fracas, you in the nest of the red and me grown rich beside you.
This kind of expansion of meaning is what makes poetry work, and what makes great poetry great. Prose is about reduction of meaning, using exactly the right words to make a specific meaning clear. Poetry is about the opposite. It is about choosing words which expand the meaning, which open up multiple possible meanings.
This is where Topal’s poetry really shines. Her knowledge of language is obvious, and she uses it to deepen her poems. For example, “Plant Sanctuary” (p. 33) uses language, the naming of plants, to explore sexual desire:
We didn’t know what to call them. Some were clusters of cups with mahogany eyes; others sexual petticoats edged in a mix of reds. We whispered wild slippers, lipstick.
Fog pawed its way through our hair and vapor shot around us gracefully; polka-dotted female parts in purples and yellows, small enough for our shirt pockets, headed up to the Georgia light. A white-haired man walked about naming the blooms in Latin: Cochlioda, Sophronitis. We chanted clitoris, vulva, areola, pausing to touch the scarlet, the golden-throated, the pendulous ones.
The true richness of In the Heaven of Never Before lies in how all of these themes—language and history, naming and desire, family, birth and death—echo and reverberate, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtlely, throughout the book. Take the poem “Max in Egypt, 1933” (p. 45):
In April, Grandpa Max sailed to Egypt where he schooled dark-haired Fatimas in the art of western romance. He called the girls Yasmine.
And each time, he asked for more. Who would have known that in several years, his life would be a ship filled with Persian carpets, crystal chandeliers and all that a fleeing Jew could carry?
Or the poem “My Name” (p. 30):
My name is moving through the street and people mistake me for fast. I am cautious with my name, so as not to upset those who named me. Not to give too much love or to promise untold fortunes. Not to disappoint, for fear of bad news, or to enter a city whose weather I cannot change.
As I said, poetry works best when it is expansive, when it contains multiple meanings. In the Heaven of Never Before is exactly that kind of poetry, every expanding, getting deeper, and more beautiful, with every reading.
—G. Murray Thomas
ON SITE CHAPBOOKS
Poets on Site (firstname.lastname@example.org)
APC Fine Arts & Graphics Gallery July 26, 2008
Artists: Milford Zornes, Bill Anderson & Ron Libbrecht
Chaffey Museum of Art August 23, 2008
Henry Fukuhara Workshop
APC Fine Arts & Graphics Gallery Sept. 6, 2008
APC Fine Arts & Graphics Gallery Dec. 7, 2008
(Throughout this review I will refer to the chapbooks by date.)
These chapbooks came out of an ongoing project in which poets are invited into a museum, to write poetry inspired by the exhibit. Then a reading is given, in the museum, with all the participating poets, plus musical accompaniment. The chapbooks collect the poems, along with pictures of the artwork which inspired them. The result is a fascinating conversation.
It is important to remember that all art is a conversation, between the artist and the viewer. Mina Kirby explains this point in her poem,”The Artist and the Viewer” (12/7/08 p. 58):
And now it is the turn
of the beholder
to let the shapes and colors
seep into the brain
and decide what they mean
Maybe the image in the brain of the artist
and the ideas in the mind of the viewer
are the same
and perhaps not
What matters is
they have connected
These poems capture that conversation as it is being carried out. The poem react to the paintings, describe, them, try to interpret them. In this way, the poets converse with the artwork, attempting to discover all the various meanings in the paintings.
There is another conversation going on as well, between the poets themselves. It is intriguing to see the variety of interpretation the various poets get from the same piece of art. This is especially true of some of the more abstract pieces (as in 12/7/08), where the same painting inspires “A lone hawk/ soars over two skiers” (Mina Kirby), “Startled eyes/ staring into emptiness” (Erika Wilk) and “Red lights/ and wailing sirens/ flash through trees” (also Mina Kirby). But to a lesser degree, the same holds true throughout the book; the poets see very different things in the painting, come up with different stories and meanings for them. Which is how the best art works.
The poets also have different approaches to the project as well. Some just describe the various paintings before them. Others attempt to (re)create the stories behind the paintings. And still others use the paintings as an inspirational leaping off point, spinning tales of their own lives, only indirectly related to the paintings. This variety of reaction adds depth to the conversation going on.
It also emphasizes the importance of interpretation in one’s viewing of art. These poets often find meaning in the paintings, but it is rarely the same meaning.
At the same time, there is some agreement among the poets. This is especially true of the 9/6/08 book, which contains numerous paintings of Manzanar, allowing the poets to explore their knowledge and reactions to this episode in our history.
Through these chapbooks, the reader does come to recognize some of the poets by their individual styles. Erika Wilk and Deborah Kolodji work in miniature, composing haiku (or haiku-like poems) which condense the paintings into a few sharp lines. Theresa Antonia produces prose poems, tight paragraphs which often explore her family background. Kath Abela Wilson works in sharp observation of natural details. Radomir Luza launches into surreal narratives which often end up far from the original painting.
On the other hand, there is an occasional sameness of some of the poems. This primarily comes from the amount of descriptions of the paintings. There is a lot of color and shape in these poems, and sometime little more.
A more serious drawback is that only a handful of these poems stand alone as great poems. I feel that this is due to the nature of the assignment—it is enough to ask a poet to compose a poem from a painting, we can’t expect them all to be brilliant.
There are some gems here. Among them are “Chautauqua at Sunset” by Susan Rogers (12/7/08), “Swamp Dog” by Sharon Hawley (7/26/08), “a view from padua hills” by Nancy Ellis Taylor (7/26/08), St. Anthony of Padua” by Lois P. Jones (7/26/08), and “Green Sea at Albian” by Maja Trochimczyk (7/26/08).
But that does nothing to diminish the overall power and significance of these books. The point here is the conversation. These books are rich and fascinating because of it.
—G. Murray Thomas
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