Poetry for Southern California
By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
OF CRIMSON FIRE
Book by Gabriela Anaya Valdepena & Richard Denner
Scorpion Romance (www.dpress.com) and Darkness Visible Books
Roses of Crimson Fire is a book about desire. It explores the many manifestations of desire, but its primary concern is unrequited desire. And it presents unrequited desire as a good thing, as desire in its purest form.
When I was given this book to review, I was warned that it is “a strange book.” It most certainly is. It is structured as an e-mail exchange, primarily between five characters, four male and one female, although a couple of other people pop up. The e-mails often include poems, usually in response to what someone has said (or occasionally done). The parts of the three main male characters (Rychard Artaud, Bouvard Pecuchet and Jampa Dorje) were all written by Richard Denner. Gabriela Anaya del Alma’s letters were written by Valdepena. The handful of letters from the fourth male character, Jacques Batard, were written by Douglas Martin.
The book seems to develop organically through the correspondence. There is no sense of following a predetermined outline, a set plot of any sort. Although there is some backstory about how these people know each other, their various relationships in the past, it is never fleshed out. Nor is it really relevant; the key is how they are relating to each other right now.
The characters create a love (lust?) pentagon. A
pentagon that revolves, not surprisingly, around Gabriela. The four men
are all in orbit around her, each desires her in his own way. Gabriela
is a bit of tease, and encourages all of their desires. She, in turn,
desires each of them, in her own way, shifting from one to the next as
the book develops.
The key is that all of these desires remain unconsummated.
The different characters represent different reactions to the problem of unfulfilled desire. Bouvard is tormented by it. Jacques tries to control it, and to control those around him through it. Jampa, a monk, attempts to deny it. But it is Gabriela who has the correct response—she enjoys it.
This is a book about enjoying desire for its own sake. Desire becomes a transcendental, almost a religious experience. The poetry included in the correspondence is almost all about desire, exploring different aspects of it, but always celebrating it.
Give me Henry Miller
a man who will love
whoever is near him,
and I will never leave his side.
(Untitled, by Gabriela, p. 66)
... Everything I see is you. I
am buried within you. Set me free to love us both. Set the sun
calmly onto self-destruction; it only wants to warm us now.
(“The Pleading” by Gabriela, p. 144)
Perhaps they were touched
I said in passing,
some careless glance I could easily
have given a bird or
an attractive handbag.
Now they are spiders
tangled in my hair
(“Goddess” by Gabriela, p. 174)
And even the correspondence contains repeated hints of desire as transcendence: “They say desire is the root of all suffering, but this warmth, which will not beg, never subsides.” (Gabriela p. 44) “Like Rumi, Padmasambhave teaches the path to liberation using symbols of desire.” (Jampa, quoted by Bouvard, p. 83)
Jampa understands this in an intellectual way, but it is Gabriela who really revels in her desire. As I said, she is a bit of tease, and obviously enjoys creating desire for herself in others. She sends them naked photos of herself (reproduced in the book, and all quite tasteful and artistic; Valdepena certainly has a talent for creative and expressive self-portraits), and she claims to desire those who react most strongly to her overtures. As long as Bouvard is tormented by his desire for her, he is the main object of her own desire. But as soon as Rychard responds to her, starts praising her, he becomes her favorite.
She seems to be searching for the proper object of her desire, but with an understanding of the value of desire itself. She neither lusts nor teases as a means to an end. She desires for its own sake, to feel the power and pleasure of desire itself.
P.S. Throughout this review I have written as if I knew exactly what this book is about. I will freely admit that I don’t; all this is just my interpretation. I may be way off from what the authors intended. It is a “strange book,” after all.
Of course, that is true of every book I review, but I with this one I feel the possibility of misinterpretation stronger than usual. Perhaps that is because the book is such a puzzle itself.
But if you’ve been paying attention to my reviews here, you know that that doesn’t matter. I believe that the power and wonder of art lies in it being open to interpretation. That what the viewer (or reader) gets out of a piece of art is at least as important was what the artist intended. And this is what I got out of Roses of Crimson Fire.
—G. Murray Thomas
Book by Mark Walton
Epic Rites Press (www.frostbittenpoetry.com)
I recently had a poet disagree with my review of his book. (No big surprise there.) His main complaint was that I didn’t give him enough credit for the honesty of his work, for his willingness to tackle, upfront and directly, topics which most other poets avoided. He did have a point; that was a strength of his work, and I maybe didn’t give him enough credit for it. But that still wouldn’t have changed my overall assessment of his work.
Honesty is certainly a virtue in poetry, but, by itself, it is no guarantee of great poetry. There are other factors that make poetry great—metaphor, image, subtlety—all the various components which add layers of meaning to our words. Honesty without these other factors can produce poetry which is, at best, flat, and at worst, didactic.
In Frostbitten, Mark Walton is certainly brutally
honest, in this case about gay relationships. But again, it is no
guarantee of great poetry. Although these poems are powerful in their
own way, they have little depth. They say what they say, and that is it.
Walton is upfront about the details of gay sex, especially in its rougher, drugged out aspects:
for stolen kisses
in recessed darkness.
You rubber clad,
A friendship seeded in furtive
(“For a Friend” p. 10)
'til the words run out,
and pills kick in again,
and the filthy beat
coming through the floor,
once more into the music.
(“The Maze” p. 4)
But Walton’s honesty goes deeper than the details of sex. He is upfront about the emotional complications of gay relationships, especially how they tend to leapfrog over those emotions straight to the sex, and how hard it can be to then deal with those feelings which were initially ignored. A number of these poems deal with the difficulties of making emotional connections, even (or especially) after sex:
That fleeting spark of recognition
may lead to ignition on many levels.
So I wonder if we are genetically programmed
or culturally conditioned to be so reductive?
The mission all too frequently to bed.
The head-long rush to sex
before exploring other connections
that we crave to keep our minds and spirits fed.
(“It’s a Queer Thing” p. 12)
This depiction of the emotional challenges of such relationships is the great strength of Frostbitten. Walton approaches the problem from many different angles, with many different stories to tell of not connecting. The problem is that these poems are primarily surface. They may be both shocking and moving on that surface, but there are no layers of meaning underneath. The voice is flat throughout, a basic recitation of facts without elaboration.
The one poetic device Walton occasionally uses is extended metaphor. In “Not You” (p. 25) he compares he lover to a “conventional bouquet,” when he wants a hedgerow, with its complexities and secrets. In “Pocket Garden” the fleeting scent of a rose is compared to the fleetingness of romantic memory.
All of this—extended metaphor, brutal honesty and lack of emotional connection—comes together in the title poem, “Frostbitten” (p. 20). Walton writes:
Even at your warmest,
the folds of you,
your arse clasped tight
around my wrist,
your guts enfolded
round my fist,
I just reached into emptiness.
A yearning never satisfied.
the only thing
you ever asked
was just how deep
I’d reached inside.
Frostbitten is a powerful portrait of troubled relationships. Although the details are of gay men, the problems described here occur in any relationship where the physical takes precedence over the emotional, any relationship where the partners find themselves unable to express how they feel.
Perhaps if these pieces had been presented as short stories, rather than poems, I would have enjoyed them more. The power of their emotional understanding might have come through stronger. As poems, I kept looking for something more, for the the heightened language and layers of meaning which make for great poetry.
—G. Murray Thomas
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