Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Prince of Belvedere and other Poems
by Ephraim Figueroa
Tabor Press 2006

There are many kinds of readers. My grandfather was a scholar who had a vast library of poetry from which he avidly read. He came from a generation who could quote from Chaucer to e e cummings with aplomb and when given the opportunity would argue the finer points of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s body of work for hours, but he was the consummate literary snob. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t particularly like poetry but considered any act of creation to be a sacred event. For her, the urge to create was everything, the great mother goddess at work. She would take me to art shows (with their attendant poetry readings) and nod her head earnestly while some artists tried to explain their works. Her journalistic instincts dug and prodded until the poor subject of her inquest would cry “mea culpa,” and run away leaving my mother shaking her head and mumbling, “I just don’t understand it.” As if to prove a point she started entering her “bonnie ickies” in local art contests, usually winning a blue ribbon for her effort. She never did get “it” but became locally celebrated anyway.

Her opinion of the written word was far more liberal. Any act of literary creation was sacred and even if she didn’t like the work she would honor its creator. This was totally contrary to my grandfather’s view. He would read and argue with the critics, going so far as to write clever and argumentative letters to the book review editor of the New York Times on a regular basis. A poet’s work should be judged by his peers and by the critical public and eventually a literary force majeure pronounces a work and its author acceptable or not and to my grandfather that was that.

My mother was a part time working journalist. She recognized that on the on the scale of literary prominence she was at the bottom being just above the scribes working for Hallmark cards. She loved to point out that in his day Michelangelo was a working artist just like the hoards of artists that populate Madison Avenue and that the poets working for Hallmark cards made considerably more money and had a far larger following than most of the “hip” poets I liked. She started writing “little ditties” for the Readers Digest just to prove to my grandfather that literature was literature whether aimed at the highbrow snob or the workingman. She would publicly brag that she’d had a piece accepted by the Readers Digest just to make my grandfather cringe.

Everyone as a bias, of course, I like to read what I like to write. I like snapshot poems that paint a picture that can be seen with the eyes closed. That’s metaphorical, of course, I’m not saying that a short description of a still life equals poetry but I’m not tied to the form. Indeed the form has often gotten in the way of my own expression. My grandfather would object. For him the form was the very definition of poetry. A prose poem, a modern poem, a Gertrude Stein poem wasn’t really a poem at all but some shorter form of writing as yet unnamed. Perhaps he’s right. I’ve never claimed to be a poet and although I’ve tortured myself into writing a quatrain I didn’t enjoy it and generally don’t enjoy reading formula poems unless the formula drops away leaving the story, the snapshot in its wake. The “Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service is great poetry as is e e cummings “little tree.” That’s my own bias. If someone were to write “little tree” today it would be judged sappy, no pun intended, and politically incorrect since it describes the murder of a little tree, the plunder of the forest so sweetly. Today “poems” by whatever form they take require meat, angst, anger and a little darkness. We get used to that and poetic forms with sweetness and light seem archaic and overly saccharine. I suspect my grandfather would approve.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to “The Prince of Belvedere and other Poems” by Ephraim Figueroa. This beautiful little book contains more than 200 classically styled little poems. A quick reading reminded me of the “old poets” my grandfather would recite:

Among the Rocks
by Robert Browning

Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.

That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
Such is life’s trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!

I don’t know why “The Prince of Belvedere” reminded me of Browning. It’s the sweetness and optimism and strict adherence to form, no free verse here, that made me think of Browning.

by Ephraim Figueroa

Tuesday comes to wake me up, he seems to say hello.
Underneath the sheets I stay, although its time to go.
“Eagerness” is not a word that properly describes
Starting out for work today, but still the mind decides:
Daily chores must first be done before it’s time to rest.
And so I leave, with cup in hand, to face my daily test
Yielding to the job at hand, I’ll try to do my best!

Yes, the initial letters spell TUESDAY and the poem is a rhyme and yes it sounds slightly Victorian in its tone. Cute. This whole book is cute and I’m not being cynical. This is not “modern,” “Language” poetry it’s in a more classic vein. No cutting edges here, just the soft, childlike purring of a neo-Victorian gentleman writing verse for the children and ladies of the household. If my grandfather wrote poetry (and I don’t know of any) he might well have written a book like this.

by Ephraim Figueroa

Beyond the horizon lies
A hidden treasure in your eyes;
And from it those who mearly gaze
Obtain much wealth for many days.

by Ephraim Figueroa

Your hair like golden sheaves of wheat,
Your eyes like stunning diamonds bright,
At once reflect the morning light,
No doubt, if ever they compete
In beauty’s realms, you would defeat
All queens on earth and them unseat

And so the author goes for 151 pages of easily accessible verse. Hallmark lookout. To be fair, the author is a self confessed lyricist of odes and hymns and his work shows it. If set to liturgical music many of these poems might well light up the otherwise drab interior of a puritanical New England church. I can hear a deacon musically chanting:

Till They see You Again
by Ephraim Figueroa

The bud shall not put forth its rose.
The streams of the south shall not repose,
Nor shall the clouds send forth their rain,
Until they see your face again.

My grandfather must be smiling after all his favorite all time poet was Alfred, Lord Tennyson whose work “farewell” seems appropriate.

A Farewell
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea,
Thy tribute wave deliver:
No more by thee my steps shall be,
For ever and for ever.

Flow, softly flow, by lawn and lea,
A rivulet then a river;
No where by thee my steps shall be,
For ever and for ever.

But here will sigh thine alder tree,
And here thine aspen shiver;
And here by thee will hum the bee,
For ever and for ever.

A thousand suns will stream on thee,
A thousand moons will quiver;
But not by thee my steps shall be,
For ever and for ever.

Children of any age as well as mothers-n-laws safely tucked away in nursing homes will appreciate this book. It’s not for everyone.

Steve Glines/ Ibbetson Update/ Jan 2007

1 comment:

  1. As a poet, I very much enjoyed my walk through your a reader, I think I enjoyed it even more. I'll link you, if I may.