- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

Poetry/Rina Faletti

Nature and the Creator are focused and meditative in different ways in local poet and editor J. Bottum's debut volume of poetry The Fall & Other Poems (St. Augustine's Press, $7, 68 pages). Like the poetry of Li-Young Lee discussed below, Mr. Bottum's work tends toward the religious and philosophical, but rather than focusing on questions, Mr. Bottum's poems rely on the answers that the surety of his faith and world view bring him.
For Mr. Bottum, nature represents two kinds of heavenly realm. Here is the stage upon which God plays out his mourning and vengeance in response to man's failings: "The world is kindling for the Lord… .[E]very falling leaf's a spit / of flame that wants New England's death / and every leaf's a burning tongue / that cries for vengeance from our wrongs." Yet, nature can also illustrate hope of sanctuary and reward: "Deep in snow New England holds / lovely, silent, finished, clean. / What mercy after such forgiveness? What resurrection waits on spring?"
In moments, Mr. Bottum is overtaken by life's uncertainties: "The twisted roots begin to stir. / … A thousand leafless crosses weave / among the trees. No hue remains." Verdicts as yet undelivered seem to brew in what the poet describes as "the killing time between / the crime and judgment, act and pain, / the pregnant days when we pretend / that consequences will miscarry / … until at last the winter breaks."
In a manner similar to Morri Creech, also discussed below, Mr. Bottum peppers his collection with poems of historical consciousness; some of these reveal that the writer has several topical axes to grind. These poems work to varying degrees of success; at times the poet attempts to serve two muses: the poet and the journalist.
Like all the poets under discussion here, Mr. Bottum expresses in several poetic metaphors the writer's eternal doubt the often indistinguishable line in writing between clarity and incomprehension, permanence and mortality:

Words weigh more than words can bear.
No guys, no props, no stays can save
this solid world from solid fall.
Too dense dead stuff
these words, this love:
the rouge on corpses, whited graves,
black shards of broken glass.

This collection also examines love and family: a dirge for his father, a poem mourning his toddler daughter's loss of innocence, a celebration watching a godchild's sudden recognition of his written name. Mr. Bottum clearly loves to play with language; he experiments with meter, rhyme, line length and poem forms. Often, his word play presents itself to humorous effect, for example, in the two-line poem "On Publishing His Memoirs": "The confidences of my lovers / Were bound to end between these covers."

Celebrated poet Li-Young Lee does not hide the fact that he has insomnia and stays up all night, writing. His newest book of poems, The Book of My Nights (BOA, $21.95, 12.95 paper, 67 pages), explicitly addresses the poet's nocturnal reality, "this night / arching over your sleepless wondering."
Mr. Lee has produced two previous, award-winning poetry collections, "Rose" (1986), and "The City in Which I Love You " (1990), and a book-length, stream-of-consciousness memoir/prose poem, "The Winged Seed" (1995). In all of his work, Lee strives to express the myriad, fragmented and dark ways in which we reconcile the workings of mind, body and heart. His subjects love, identity, origins offer a litany of repeating images that add up to a kind of sacred meditation on the cyclic nature of unanswerable questions of existence. For Mr. Lee, poetry is a religious undertaking. Poems create and reveal a vast universe where "each must make a safe place of his heart, / before so strange and wild a guest / as God approaches."
These poems meditate tirelessly on questions of time and being, death and origins: "The hours themselves, where do they hide? / The fruit of listening, what's that? / … What does my death weigh?" or "God, is it you? / Is it me? Do you have a mother?" or "Whose footsteps are those / hurrying toward beginning?"

Li-Young Lee's poetry, like "a bigger house," is

… a memory of heaven.
Voices coming closer, voices moving away,
and what we thought we knew
about life on earth confounding us.

And then that question
from which all the other questions begin.

Like his questions, Mr. Lee's lines cycle through his metaphor of night, that expansive place where, the poet declares, "between two unknowns, I live my life," drawing "a new circumference / even the stars enlarge by crowding down to hear." Finally, in "the body's ripe listening / the planet / knowing itself at last," he finds a sense of resolution.

Almost a decade ago, Kent State University initiated the Wick Poetry First Book Series, in which an American poet of renown is asked to judge from hundreds of entries an outstanding first book of poems, which the university then publishes. Li-Young Lee served as judge most recently, choosing for publication Paper Cathedrals (Kent State University Press, $12, 72 pages) by Morri Creech, a debut collection of 41 poems examining religious themes through lenses of both New and Old Testament history and of personal experience.
In the first and third sections of the book, Mr. Creech makes his claims in personal testaments inspired by childhood memories, family photographs, remembered places, parables. In the middle section, he composes an impressive 12-poem sequence narrated in the voice of Judas Iscariot. This work resonates with the question: "Judas, why are you afraid?" and the acknowledgement, a requisite for Mr. Creech, of "the guilt that sustains us."
Li-Young Lee writes of Mr. Creech in the introduction to the volume: "The hard-won news he brings to us is good: The treasures of paradise lie within ourselves." Mr. Creech presents a state of being in which God, the imperfect body, and human decision are in constant conflict, but this poet's kind of conflict reaches for resolution in interdependence and balance. Throughout his poetry, Mr. Creech demonstrates an interest in the workings of "the difficult heart," in "the terrible acts by which love is painstakingly known."

Also of note in the Wick Series is the book that Washington poet Henry Taylor's keen eye judged fit for publication, Karen Kovacik's Beyond the Velvet Curtain (Kent State University Press, $22, $12 paper, 72 pages), a work that is scintillatingly irreverent and varied. The poet's rampant imaginative poetic talent can apparently tackle anything: She writes in traditional forms in innovative ways, invents characterizations of recognizable pubic figures including a series of funny poems ostensibly about former President Richard Nixon and explores her take on ordinary human experience in a smattering of historical time periods and narrative voices.
Karen Kovacik's poetry builds a world concerned with "how deep the layers go," a world that can take this idea literally, as the ex-president does in her invented musings in "Nixon on the Pleasures of Undressing a Woman." With intelligence and agility, she pokes fun at serious things, but she also takes seriously the most important silences: For an old woman in 1927 Moscow, "hunger rattles on / like an empty train;" in post-Nazi Europe, "Breslau … is both a mineshaft / and the men trapped in it;" in a memory of childhood and father, a narrator laments "all the hours on our knees, praying for the wrong thing."
In his introduction, Mr. Taylor writes: "Kovacik appears to be most at ease in risky territory." The poems in "Behind the Velvet Curtain" speak with volume and confidence, advocating a fierce involvement with life.

Rina Faletti is a Washington poet and critic.

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