Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Review of Sonatina by John Michael Simon

By Johnmichael Simon
2007; 86pp;Ps; Ibbetson
Street Press, 25 School
Street, Somerville, MA

The first thing that strikes the reader of Johnmichael Simon’s exquisite collection of poetry, Sonatina (published this fall by Ibbetson Street Press), is the ubiquity of the musical metaphor—in the title, the cover design, the illustrations, the musical notations that mark off separate clusters of poems and run across the foot of every page, and, most tellingly, in the substance of almost every poem.

It’s there on page one in “To Hold the Notes,” which takes us through the technical revolution in musical reproduction from handwritten scores to MP3, only to land us at last beside a shack in the woods where “seated on simple wooden chairs four youngsters sat/ at cello, viola and two violins/…and as we smiled and listened on/ we knew the notes had found their home.” Eighty-five pages and sixty-eight poems later, it still haunts the poet’s consciousness. In “Unbearable Silence” he envisions first the subtraction of sound from street, mall, market—even Mecca during Ramadan—and then, perhaps a bit portentously, from the earth itself at the end of history:

“When the last page is closed
an empty world
longs for a sound,
an orange, or even
a chanting mob
to lighten the silence.”

The musician or composer, faced with a lifeless world, craves not so much human contact, as anything audible, even a few scraps of proto-music.

Elsewhere, Simon’s touch is sure and light—in “Toccata and Fugue,” where a bellringer wishes he could capture the “fluttering of pigeons” in the belfry “between the five lines of the stave,” or in “Oboe d’Amore,” where the instrument’s reedy, melancholy sound evokes memories as achingly untouchable as a “melody played on/ the wings of a blackbird/ pecking at a plum.”

There are, in fact, many of Simon’s poems that dwell on subjects only obliquely related to music—“Listening to the Voices Inside,” “To Aid the Words”—or ostensibly not at all, like “Age is Heavy on the Ground,” that celebrates a grandmother’s indefatigable beauty: “from flower to fruit / to candle glow on silverware and china/ Age is heavy on the ground/ weightless as a butterfly.”

Several of the best poems have a lovely, equivocal turn at the end, like “The Couple”: “It’s difficult/ to understand/ how these things/ work” and “Country Rose”: “lost in the crowd she’ll wrap herself in anonymity/ cross her legs, perhaps smile a little less,/ but that’s alright [sic] too” and “A Gift from China”: “Perhaps some Beijing worker/ dreaming of a rest-day in the park/ packed her in there by mistake/ an unintended New Year gift.”

In the end, however, one is reminded by almost every piece in this rewarding collection that the best poetry is musical thought, and that, in Walter Pater’s words, “all art aspires to the condition of music.”

--Abbott Ikeler/ Ibbetson Update

Abbott Ikeler

* B.A., Harvard University; M.A., University of Pittsburgh; Ph.D., University of London, Kings College

Abbott Ikeler taught literature and writing at Bowdoin College, the University of Muenster, and Rhode Island College before entering the corporate world. His academic achievements include a Senior Fulbright Fellowship, a book on nineteenth-century aesthetics, and numerous articles on Victorian fiction. From the mid-eighties to 2001, he held public relations and advertising positions with three multinationals and a full-service agency. Immediately before coming to Emerson, Dr. Ikeler was Director of Communications and Public affairs for the Internet and Networking Division of Motorola, a post he held for three years. The focus of his current research is global public relations, especially the impact of non-media influencers, such as industry and financial analysts.

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