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All Worlds


by Terry Lucas


In The Next Life, Joan Baranow, Poetic Matrix Press, Lake Isabella, California, 94 pages, $17.00 paperback, www.poeticmatrix.com.


MANY POETS TAKE THEIR readers on journeys to other worlds. Melana Morling, for example, in her opening poem to Astoria (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006) begins: "If there is another world, / I think you can take a cab there, / or ride your old bicycle / down Junction Blvd." I love Morling's proximity of transcendence, and how, throughout her collection, she journeys there via the ordinary.

In Baranow's new collection, however, the poet assures us that we need not even leave our rooms to experience the totality of existence, because all worlds are available through poetry. And the worlds selected contain delightful divergencies that the poet rigorously probes with both the precise language of science and the ineffable language of poetry. In her poem, "Ars Poetica," after exploring the relationship between poetry, prosody, and people ("Why do words, when chimed, make you weep?"), Baranow states:

And so…

(a deft ellipsis brings me back)


to gravity, my theme.

Or beauty? Both, like train cars

coupling, pinky finger-linked for miles.


Pain and joy—

even atoms want their mates.

Though also unpredictable:


nerves, like lightning, have their own agendas.


When there's much to say you close the door.


You type it up then write back into it.


What you're looking for—

a canteen flung in road dust,

a neighbor with a crowbar

splintering the door—


you can't help but swear


somewhere, between the lines, it's there.

Baranow is well aware of negative capability—Keats's ability to hold two diametrically opposed positions simultaneously—and her poems never forget this capacity either, illustrated above with those wonderful "train cars…pinky finger-linked," and that "Pain and [italics mine] joy—"

In her opening poem, "Believing," the poet makes it clear that she lines up with modernism, the idea that the solution to humanity's problems lies within humanity's inherent capabilities:

I believe in wrapping the baby in the blanket.

I believe in the father jingling his keys.


I believe in forgiving the son who dented the car,

the daughter who lost her new shoes.


I believe in recess at school, reasonable roads,

neighbors who sleep late on Saturdays,

who lend you eggs for the cake.


I believe in sharing the cake.


I believe in symphonies and rock concerts.

Otherwise, small groups will do—

poetry readings and the like.


I believe in nature's wallop, floodwaters,

wild lilies, the slipperiness of minutes,

the usual moon and tides.

But the poet also makes it clear that she stands in the shadow of Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself."

I believe, too, in the mania of the many—

countries counting munitions,

subtracting soldiers from the list.


I believe nothing will change this.

Not prayer, nor uniformed officers.


Peace and terror forever,

like the heart's swell and cramp,

like our wish to rescue the vanishing wolves.

The joy of reading Baranow's poems is found, in part, by experiencing poetry that is connected to the canon, but that also has its own unique metaphorical sensibility—the same kind of sensibility in which the poet Alicia Ostriker writes, and that Peter Campion writes about (Poetry, December 2009):

By "metaphorical sense" I mean a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It's not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without "like" or "as," but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in consciousness…to examine and re-examine motifs [that] begin to constellate a whole climate of thought and feeling as amplitudinous as any symbol system. Metaphorical sense always implies the vision of a larger shape of being.

Thus, Baranow's poems are not simply rife with gorgeous metaphors, connecting disparate elements, representing all things in this world in a new light, but Baranow has also created an entirely new world—hinting throughout her book of a "next life" that holds worlds both mimetic and anti-mimetic, where art mimics life, and life mimics art—"a world without edges, reflective, // like looking into a spoon / at your own / estranged features."

AT EYE LEVEL


Gnats like being eye to eye,

unlike bees and flies and,

well, most creatures.


On a bench you'll be surprised

by a passing squirrel's

dropped seeds, half an acorn


gnawed through the middle.

A fly might light on

an open book,


but he's otherwise occupied.

Those frogs along the water's rim,

one looking that way,


one another, rest there

like old men

(minus arthritis).


And fish! What do they see

of trees and sky

but a world without edges, reflective,


like looking into a spoon

at your own

estranged features?

Baranow ups the emotional stakes early, as her poems progress from these tantalizing hints to more direct statements, culminating in the title poem and its neighbors in section three. Witness her investigation into the relationship between the realities of nature and art in "From This Distance":

An ant clambers onto my sandal,

strikes out across my toe,

is joined by others like water


sucked through a straw.

Is it awe I want to feel?

Am I supposed to know


about these furry-edged leaves

whose berries are bluing?

To my left an aspen snapped


at the waist. Several here

have avalanched

as if with sappy brains


they've judged their own heft

and heaved over. We can't be everywhere

though to touch a particle


alone in space

jars another. Even an eight-year-old

can see the empty swing


sway. But this is simple.

Explain instead the moth's physics,

its unsteady flight


dipping and doubling

back with blind, frenetic tack

though it sees


with fifty more eyes

than ours. What am I asking?

The sun grows the shadows,


I'm tired of the strict music in my head,

"the wind's entreaties,"

which are not the wind's


but my own grief

gasping its speech, poetry's

hypnosis.


Distrust. Distrust.

Pick the bee's legs of their pollen.

Thrust your hand down


a snake's throat. Wheel yourself

into the operating room.

Watch how lovingly they scrape


the bodies out. Cough up

something sick. Is this it?

What? Have we finished


gnawing our bones?

Have I?

An ant is dragging


a dead larva

three times its size towards me.

I know that you know that


but I won't stop the words.

They are beating out the —O—

briefest pilot light. Inferno.

In the final two stanzas, the poet's logic is inescapable. Even though she "know[s] that you know that [an ant can drag a dead larva three times its size], [she] won't stop the words." Poetry, and by extension, art, has as much ontological priority, and as much vulnerability to extinction, as the physical world—the "briefest pilot light. Inferno."

But the purpose of these poems is not didactic. Although much can be learned from them, they are not primarily instructive in nature. They celebrate this life—all that it contains—and whatever comes next. Here then is the title poem, "In the Next Life." Read it aloud to experience all of its gorgeous, musical language, allowing it to connect previously unconnected synapses, and to reinforce those neural pathways that bring delight and hope!

IN THE NEXT LIFE


You'll slip into the ocean's

inky dungeons, reborn

as a two-ton squid,

or reappear as that same

mosquito you squashed

while hiking through

New Jersey's pine barrens.

You'll feel your soul squeeze

into Rush Limbaugh's manic

descendant, a baseball cap

distributor for the northeast coast,

a man who fled home

only to find himself pawning

the slim sliver necklace

his grandmother had given him.

You might be snow packed

into a girl's acrylic mitten

or a taste bud

as she licks the snow.

You may wince while clipped

from the dictator's mustache

or shine in the small

jar of polish his wife likes.

If asked, I'd choose something

simple, more mute

than my present incarnation,

to return as a wild strip

of loosestrife I glimpsed once

while riding up front in a truck,

or else a June bug

stuck to a screen, mating.

I'd like to try being

a breeze that touches the hot

cheeks of a bawling infant,

to enter her lungs

and cool the cramped

muscle of her heart.

Think of it—someday

your flesh will feed

stinkbug and jewel weed.

may your spirit tumble

in the moist tower

of a troublesome

thundershower.




Terry Lucas is the Poet Laureate of Marin County. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Columbia Poetry Review, Rosebud, and many other publications. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize seven times. His poetry collections include In This Room and Dharma Rain. He lives in Mill Valley, California. For more, see www.terrylucas.com.


— posted JUNE 2020
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