Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Age of Wonders, poems by Lawrence Kessenich (Big Table Publishing, 2016)

Age of Wonders, poems by Lawrence Kessenich (Big Table Publishing, 2016)

Reviewed by Denise Provost

In Black Swans, for instance, the setting is straight out of a fairy tale – a visit to a daughter spending “a semester in a castle –transformed/into a college campus ….” Contemplating the black swans (“known to chase visitors/across the broad lawns, honking madly”) in the moat, the narrator contemplates the grown child who has “we suspect, taken a professor/ for a lover.”

What to think of such a turn? What is the device that will move us from here to the happy ending we’ve been primed to anticipate? With a profound and subtle turn the narrator reveals that “[p]art of me would like to be

angry at this dark prince of learning, but I
can’t be sure I’d be able to resist,
if I taught young women, the temptation
to wind myself around them like

the lithe, muscular neck of a black swan.
Besides, our sons and daughters sail their own
moats, honking madly if we get too close.
It’s their castle and they will defend it.

Like so many of Kessenich’s poems, Black Swans is a masterpiece of equipoise, its elements twining into a perfect balance of emotional insights. It’s evident in The Buddha’s Shoulder, one of two meditations on the narrator’s relationship with a wooden figure of the teacher whose name is almost synonymous with enlightenment. This statute is one which has, quite literally, been lightened: “faded by morning sun./The nut-brown wood has turned blonde,/like a washed out dye job.”  The narrator confesses:

Being less compassionate, and more attached
to things remaining as they are, I’m bothered
by these blond patches on the Buddha’s image.
I’ve considered retouching him with a stain….

The great teacher’s lessons having been? seen as? too powerful for such interference, the narrator considers that

Perhaps I’ll learn to meditate on his 
imperfect shoulder, his marred knee, come to
accept that life is a long, slow fade toward death.

There Is no self-pity, no melodrama in the tone of this poem, or in other poems contemplating the trajectory of life to its end – or even beyond. A poem which undertakes the latter course is the extraordinary Afterlife. I know of several readers whose reaction to this breathtaking poem has been to say that they wanted to read it at the memorial service of a loved one, or have it read at their own. Afterlife reimagines the Biblical seven days of creation as a creative deconstruction:

Day 3
Your individuality begins
to melt like the Wicked
Witch of the West, all your
beautiful wickedness –and
you do see its beauty as
it goes –melting in a puddle
at what was once your feet. 

It’s surprising to find such a spirit of equanimity in any collection of contemporary poetry, but it consistently manifests in this collection. When, in the poem The Zen of Mescaline, the narrator says “[m]y identity slips the leash of form,” we recognize the cast of mind that unifies this work. It is one which is open to the particulars of experience, its marvels and mysteries, with a deep acceptance and a self-aware, sly humor.

In the title poem, a scene of natural beauty at an ancient cultural site is interrupted by the rumble of a jet:

my mind goes to dissatisfaction
with the world of whining engines and progress.
It is then the ancients speak to me: “You live
In an age of wonders. Enjoy them!”….

It may not be possible to read these poems and not absorb even a little of the attitude of even-handed appreciation they convey.  Lines from these poems may bubble up into the ordinary, the tedious, the vexing, and even the painful episodes of life, with little breaths of patience and peace. Who knows? Wider dissemination of these poems may help make America grateful again – for, after all, we live in an age of wonders.

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