Of This World: New and Selected Poems by Joseph Stroud
Reading Joseph Stroud’s Of This World: New and Selected Poems, two words come to mind, namely “breadth” and “breath.” "Breadth" because of his unerring command of odes, prose poems, sestets, etc., for his homely musings from a cabin in the Sierra Nevada, for his evocations of distant lands like the “stark white fields of Kárpathos,” and Vietnam, where “fisherman cast their nets over the Thu Bon River,” Spain, where nightingales sing in Andalucían ravines, the Guatemalan Highlands, where women sing “over a corpse in an earthen house, / keening a music like distant surf breaking / within the very heart of the mountain.” "Breadth" because of his travels within the labyrinthine corridors of grief, because of his homages to sundry poets like Sappho, Li Po, and Christopher Smart, to name a few, because of his rapturous praise of painters like Bonnard, Breughel, Cézanne, and especially Goya. And "breath" because of each poem’s sure-footed movement, internal: as in the lacustrine rhythms, elegantly placed caesuras, and balanced line lengths, and external: as each poem in the collection flows into the next, themes emerging like tiny tadpoles behind rocks in a clear lake, like butterflies suddenly flitting over marigold bushes.
Make no mistake, however, these are not sleepy meditations that go up in incense smoke, but fleshy encounters, sensuous reveries, poems that are as much throbbing taproots as they are like that imaginary wingless bird that never lands, or, in other words, poems that flock as much as they flow. To use the poet’s own words these poems are “Old and weathered, like leather / out in the rain all winter, smelling / of wood smoke, bleached silver / by the days, almost ready to go / back into earth, a husk, almost / empty, filled, almost, with light.” Just look at those countless cracks and crevices, listen to how those nearly illuminated husks, those “bleached silver” things, sing as much as they sting, how they ring with wisdom and survival, of loss and renewal.
Of This World is divided into eight sections. The first, “Suite For the Common,” is a collection of eighty-four sestets, tiny capsules containing many of Stroud’s thematic grains, namely seemingly idle musings on nature, honest confessions, spiritual meditations from a Buddhist perspective -- often conflations of physics and faith -- tributes to painters and poets, and lyrical musings on death and grief, usually regarding his father. The poem “Chaos Theory: Equation” offers a kind of poetic mathematics:
The sun multiplied by bees equals honey and the addition
of leaves with rain is the sum of nights in summer
when pines ooze the resin time turns to amber
on the necklace around the throat of the woman
dividing her past by mornings in the spell of flowers
factored by the love marriage makes of yearning & desire.
“The Years like Crows Coming Home to Roost” is just one example of Stroud’s awestruck lyricism. The poet’s vision is true, his ear is clear, his voice as sturdy as both:
Outside my window a single crow over the grove
forty years ago and when I look again there are legions
winging into the trees, their shapes like sable embers
flaming into black tongues, squalling among themselves
in the raucous unspeakable syllables of some primal,
alien world, cawing down the night to cover them.
And in his sestet “Praxis,” a reflection on the Kokinshū (an early Heian waka Imperial anthology of seasonal, love, and lament poems), Stroud has learned that “poetry should move earth / and heaven, stir the feelings of the unseen gods, / soften the relations between man and woman, / and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.” But, while Stroud is humbled by the profound task of the poet, he reflects that, after starting a poem, “the really tricky part / is getting from one line to the next.” Stroud’s method of getting from one line to the next is as hard to see as those invisible gods, as slippery to grasp as those aforementioned tadpoles, and like those butterflies, they refuse to be caught and pinned down.
Of This World’s second section, “Passing Through,” is a kind of mini-travelogue of Spain, Greece, Venice, Yorkshire County’s “dells, farms… blackberry and cloud country.” Here we drift toward Santo Domingo “shining ahead in the sudden sun,” to the home of the gods, to desert tombs “where the bones are piled higher than your head,” to the jungle where “papaya trees, bushpigs / rooting among the coconut husks, vines / seething with passionflowers, skinks / skittering among roots, and all of it / a feast, a continual gorging,” to Granite Creek Ridge where we find a cat dead after plugging his head into a pipe, “peering through five feet of tunnel toward the dim light at the end. Like the chimney of hell,” to Machu Picchu where the poet receives a potato, “a potato with its peasant face… lumps and lunar craters.”
In “Passing Through,” Stroud employs free verse, offers a smattering of prose poems, and in “Documentary” takes a cinematic approach to record what he sees:
Bring the camera closer in. Focus
on the burning ghat. They’ve finished
the ceremony around the body, are now torching
the wooden pyre. See how the tongues of flame
rise from the limbs. Zero in on the head—
hold steady—capture the skull as it bursts.
Pan down the torso, the spine in ashes, the hips
crumbling. Dolly back for the scenic shot—
the Ganges flowing past. Keep the tension
sharp, you might catch the silhouette
of the rare river dolphin. Filter the lens
to bring the blue out of the mud-silt.
Now zoom down the middle of the river,
that small boat, the boatman dumping a child
overboard. Get his flex of muscle
as he struggles with the stone tied to the corpse.
Then back to the panorama, the vista, the storm
rushing in. Lightning flashing far off
over the river palace. The silver drizzle
of rain. A quiet glow on the water.
It is a harrowing scene, but the poet remains moored to the spot, zooming back and forth between details and the big picture, composing his frame, focusing his lens, quietly attentive, allowing his eye to pick up every sensation, to wait, for as long as it takes, for something to reveal itself, to unfold. Doing so, he is rewarded with a view of bursting skulls, blue mud-silt, a brewing storm, and an almost perfunctory dumping of a dead child into this river of life and death.
Earlier, in a sestet, Stroud described how Kobayashi Issa, Japanese haiku master, wrote “about the loneliness / of fleas, watermelons becoming frogs to escape from thieves, / Moon in solstice, snowfall under the earth…” In Of This World’s third section, “Voices / Homages,” Stroud pays further tribute with “Listening to Issa,” a suite of haiku of his own. Issa’s humorous and earthy style, brimming over with a kind of childlike purity, both informs Stroud’s homage here and his approach generally. Stroud’s haiku, “The child/ pulling a turnip with all his strength/ topples backward,” would be stronger if shaved down to “The boy/ pulling a turnip/ topples backward.” This edit collapses the redundancy of “child” and “his,” removes the unnecessary commentary of the phrase “with all his strength,” which is implied by the sheer force of “toppling backward,” while also giving a hint of playful alliteration. But I’m quibbling, for Stroud’s haiku mirrors Issa’s childlike purity here:
wipes muddy feet
on the plum blossoms
Where are you
going in this rain
Stroud matches the master’s earthiness here:
I look down and see
a wild iris
And his sober reflections on mortality here:
Am I next?
Is it this body you’re cawing about
“The Old Poets Home” is a place where formerly gushing poets, now empty wells, imagine how language once “lit up the dark night of the soul, lit it up with suns and moonlight, with music and marvels, great visionary leaps, words falling like rain, like snow, like stars on fire…” Throughout his poems, Stroud meditates on the power of language, how it conjures “dragons of the human heart, / perfecting the craft that would hold them / focused and brutal” (“Dolor”), how poets measure “with words / the wordless process the body / proceeds with” (“Alchemy: Final Music”), how those “words will find a way across the page” and “make a path into the morning” (“Cathedral”), and how, even when the mind draws a blank, words effervesce, rattle “their cages, clamoring to get out… big ones, scrawny ones, heroic and muscular ones, coy, loony words, words tasting of cloves and licorice, cross-dressed words wearing feathery boas, quantum words, kaons and koans, singularities, black hole words sucking up light, love, and loss, exploding words, supernovas…” (“Homage to the Word-board") It is in words that poets, like the old hymn resounds, live and move and have their being.
By the time we reach the book’s fourth section “Daybook, Nightbook: Shay Creek,” Li Po, Sung Dynasty poets, Buddha, T’ao Ch’ien, Confucius, and Tu Fu, are like old friends, even when we haven’t been formally introduced. Stroud also offers some shaped poems worthy of Apollinaire. “Homage to the Presence of the Mystery of Us” is a sacrum, a regenerative vulva. Pointing like an arrowhead, hanging like a stalactite, it is an icicle-shaped oracle:
All afternoon on the hillside above the hot springs,
dozing and reading, in the July heat, looking now
and then across the ravine to the large boulders
and mottled shade, not paying much attention,
just drowsing, drifting, daydreaming, letting
the scene wash over me without focusing,
without noticing until later that night,
staring into the fire, into the Roman
world of flames and ember, when
it came to me, that shape on the
river side, in the shadows,
where I had been so long
in gazing—and where
finally I now see the
great antlered head
turn and the buck
rise to its feet
The elegiac poems in “All the Rooms Are Burning,” are memories and dreams painted with a dark paste of ashes and tears. In “The Singing, the Darkness, the Earth as Language,” Stroud, in an imaginative argument with Tsang-kie, the “inventor” of language, reflects on “how to accommodate death.” He cries out to his deceased mother in the poems, “Lupine,” where “Death like rain / washes us clean,” and “Lament,” where “the blade always finds the heart.” In “Calligraphy,” Stroud regards “Virtù in the vortex of death.” “Grief” finds the poet visiting the “Wailing Wall of the Jerusalem” within himself. In “Death in the Tehachapis,” we find Death sibilantly “stalking slowly, spectral.”
And in “Midterm, Between Hamlet and Heart of Darkness, First Day of Our Bombing in Afghanistan,” Stroud, in rare political mode, broods “over graves standing tenantless, the dead gibbering in the streets under stars with trains of fire and dew of blood, disasters in the sun and in the skies above Jalalabad, where today the world broke open.” It’s an anger that at first seems out of place with the rest of Of This World, but as one reads it again, one finds Stroud’s familiar melancholy, his reveries on ancient ruins, his lyrical flights. After making parallels between his readings of Hamlet and Heart of Darkness, he looks “out to sea, / the far horizon under a bank of clouds, a waterway / leading to the uttermost ends of the earth, somber / under a darkening sky, ribbons of light unraveling, / disappearing into the heart of an immense darkness.” It’s a theme Stroud returns to in “Letter to Robinson Jeffers, Big Sur Coast, Winter 2005,” where he laments how “governments rearm, / the age of tyrants returns, and America / has thickened to Empire. It is our sword / raised over the smaller nations of the world.”
Death runs through these poems like a cold wind seeping through the halls of an old house, the wintry nip through window cracks, it is there in “Book of Horror,” “plundering and ravaging, / sheathing everything in frost,” it is the breath wafting out Lorca’s blasé executioner’s mouth, it is the thread “Stitching the Woe Shirt,” it is there in this section’s remaining reminiscences of childhood. And it is the requiem playing over the rolling credits of “Alchemy: Final Music.”
I read “I Wanted to Paint Paradise” as a series of linked micro-fictions about the Giotto Di Bondone, the Florentine painter and architect from the early 14th century. Most famous for his paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Giotto distinguished himself because of the emotional depth of his painted faces. These small narrative poems, written in Giotto’s voice, are like Stroud’s own life, a life he describes in “Here and Now” as a “sometimes happy, sometimes sad, little life.” Giotto describes a dance of light through a chapel’s windows, of his dog’s eyes, “amber, like a glass of moscato held up to the sun,” of his friendship with Dante, of a “river filling with the melt of the sun, shimmering, like the long swirling tail of a dragon.” Giotto also tells funny stories like one of a pig loosed in a village marketplace and of his foolishly ambitious apprentices who “want to paint the structure of the vaults of heaven, great columns of light. Monolithic.” Meanwhile, Giotto wants his signature to be recognized “in the fragments. In the way I paint the poppy. Or the ear of this burro. A leaf. A face in the crowd. Let them seek me in the small, the common. Let it be the everyday psalms where they find me.” Seemingly anticipating a quote from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Giotto knows that god is in the details, and that
To paint the body accurately is not enough, it must be made to occupy a credible space, not stacked like wood or floating above the world in mystical suspension. The body must have depth, a dimension that cuts into the space around it. Like sculpture. There must be light and shadows. There must be a logic to the arrangement of figures in a landscape. The old man this morning scything wheat, the oak casting a pool of shadow, and behind them the hill receding farther and farther, diminishing to a point that vanishes. Can this be measured? Music has rules of harmony. Mathematics has its golden numbers. And for painting as well? Are there laws of dimension, of proportion and space? If there are chords of sound, might there be as well harmonies of light?”
This passage complements “Letter to Rachel, Seattle, Summer 1973,” where Stroud considers the body’s mortality, how it “is simply water’s / most intricate catch, its most complex vehicle for traveling over earth… how fragile the body is.” Reading the Giotto passages like the one above, with the master’s distinctive voice captured, the reader is left hoping Stroud one day tackles an epic length piece in which Giotto’s life unfolds day by day.
Flipping Of This World’s final pages, I thought that instead of using a title that inverts an admonition invariably attributed to Jesus Christ and the Sufis, that is, to be in the world, but not of it, Joseph Stroud could have used a line from “Festival,” one of his own poems, and call his book: Our Broken Machine at Last at Flow with the River. That phrase best captures Stroud’s recognition of our frailty, forgetfulness and inattention, amidst the noise of avarice, war, and other distractions, coupled with a profound and compassionate awareness of everything that breathes around him. Even after many fits and starts, the poet says, there is still the possibility for connection, for movement, for flowing.
Of This World: New and Selected Poems by Joseph Stroud
Copper Canyon Press