Tuesday, May 15, 2012



HAVE by Marc Gaba
(Tupelo Press, North Adams, MA, 2011)


catch light by Sarah O'Brien
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2009)

Space is impossible to depict without non-space. By "non-space", I mean what is visible. Pure space is invisible so one can see it only through contrast with something visible or imagined-to-be-visible (e.g. to see the interior of a circle, there must exist a circle).

White space is an interesting sub-category. It is sometimes -- as with poetry -- identified with an empty or the empty portions of a page. I consider HAVE's poems to have mastered the presentation of white space. But what does that mean? Does it matter what the texts say? Or are the lines presented by letters or words strung together sufficient by presenting white space? Should the words, especially if they present "elliptical" poems, suffice as marks on a page versus creatures with underlying definitions (albeit subjective ones per context)?

Perhaps a clue is offered individually by, or by the combination of, the dedication "to the book's readers" and the first poem:

He laid the body of his friend which for days he had been carrying

The grasses around him yellowing, stopped in the windless field

The ghost asked himself where he should go then the wind said no

Yes, the poem consists only of three lines despite the title. Hence, it's the reader(s) that provides the fourth line? Is this poem then also about the necessity of reader-response?

Why not?

For the poems, indeed, are (or can be) elliptical. Meaning is (or can be) uncertain. But what they all share is evocativeness, a power that moves the receptive reader to respond -- and such is not possible without words and their subjective meanings. For instance, I could suggest that these words from "WITHIN JUSTICE,"
...It's not that happiness isn't terminal but that witness is radical, fantasy its proof We forget so that life and the conceit of "reality" can coincide while justice is perpendicular to the coincidence....

relate to the post-World War II political history of the Philippines (well, the poet happens to be Filipino, as I am) but surely these words, too, can evoke something else....

Even the poem "WATER UNDERSTOOD" which presents arguably the most narrative certainty in the collection with its opening line
Can I use the word we to mean the water we have seen

only to end with
...water understood, we are not words, we are not water.

is not as conclusive as it may seem. For the ending line in total is "while we say as water that water understood, we are not words, we are not water." So that the one offering this conclusion is a mystery (cipher?): if the conclusion "we are not water" is offered by someone who speaks "as water", does the conclusion hold?

The book's physical scale also facilitates the call for reader-response to apply significance to the poems. The book, at 7.5 x 9", is sized wider than many poetry books (6 x 9"). This allows the text to be presented as amidst white space. The white space can be a metaphor for what is not articulated -- a visual metaphor possible only through contrast: there are words but not anywhere the amount needed to fill up the white spaces around them. The white space is a metaphor, too, for how the reader may wish to respond....as the reader wishes to fill in the white space.

One of the most effective poems is "BETWEEN DIFFERENCE" which is comprised of a single line strum across the center of the page:
A deaf girl walks along a long glass wall singing the way echoes are no one's songs.

The text is followed by two blank pages--brilliant visuals of "the way echoes are no one's songs." (Yes, Gaba is not just a poet but also a visual artist.) To do a close reading of that line is to engage in a plunge down Alice's hole, or a vortex spiraling down to where the bottom is unseen, if it even exists. (Hence, I won't read it for you ... besides, the power of its evocation should be obvious if unclear).

I like what one of the blurbers, G.C. Waldrep, says about these poems--that HAVE hangs "from the stone wall of faith, or more precisely, from an idea of faith." These poems have the quality of prayers, but it's not clear where or to whom the prayers are directed ... because the poet cannot know who will read, let alone empathize or engage deeply with one's poems. But the desire of the poet for these poems to find their soul-mate reader(s) is evident: if the poet indeed prayed to create these poems, I wouldn't picture him sitting on a chair, hands clasped in front of his chest. I'd picture him fully horizontal, laid across a cold stone floor with arms stretched on either side as he manifested total abandon to whatever altar is before him:
the curtains the equations rising why after why after because when you gave me I was explained.

Perhaps, Dear Reader, you can glean from the combination of the poem-excerpts and what I say about them that this is one of those poetry collections where what one says about the poem inevitably lapses, is incomplete? Let my words, then, be significant mostly for being an encouragement for you to read the poems themselves--the experience of these poems really should be unmediated.

Having said that, let me go on to say more. The book's cover is wittily ironic: the word HAVE bespeaks content but the cover is mostly of white space interrupted only by the title, the word "poems" and the author's byline. It's clever. It could have been a cover with just two lines presented by the one-word title and two-word author's name. The insertion of "poems", however, is the insertion of a pulse in the midst of the page -- the implication of a full-ness despite the almost empty space. It's minimalism at its best, actually: when a few marks creates the essence of much. And that the inserted word is "poems" of course hearkens how poetry is often a minimalist textual art.

Note that when you have a white space cover, what is the shift that occurs when the text is in red vs black? Color is narrative and the insertion of a color that hearkens blood, wounds ("a wound slipped in like a flag"?), roses, passion, et al is a deft move. Kudos to the book designer Bill Kuch.


What one says about "white space"--the inability to articulate it, nay, see it?, without reliance on contrast--can be said about light. But Sarah O'Brien's lucid collection, catch light, indeed catches light as masterfully as one can imagine. Contrast can be offered by color, which is of course a component of light, as in this luminous opening poem

Once, white paint was thrown out across the city, from the roofs of apartment buildings and the tops of trees for some festival, and it looked a bit like this, like nobody could get a hold of it; the paint had even come off on the hands of the people walking and they said, look, holding up a palm, this is a tree, this is a window, this is the sky.

But contrast can also be offered, O'Brien wisely observes then offers, not through the physical but through what the imagination makes solid. For instance, from "LIGHT MATTERS":
Memory is in light. It is often the most
           crystalline thing. An untuned            shift,
there where your hair was struck and above your skull
caught the light resting
                      it spun blonde weather.

It gets in everywhere.

O'Brien's wisdom can only be possible through a very observant eye that, in turn, further enervates her poems, e.g. from "LIGHT MATTERS":
                      a child has no word for lambent
sees each tree            blocking its own bit of sun. Raiser her hand
           to the window
making shade and letting it fall away. There are certain things you
           shouldn't do like look
long enough at the sun that it begins to sear.

I adore the concept of "making shade" as a means of obviating light. O'Brien's deftness is one of this collection's strengths. Here's another fabulous example (from ""LIGHT MATTERS)that relates becoming blind to a returned letter
Light where there shouldn't be light. And then you're blind. A person

           walks past and a face is almost seen but for the sun in it and yours.
           An eye rests out of light but in memory of it. And you turn but still

                      the face escapes into
its shadow, its profile, backed by heavy sun it's sharp
                      to look at.

The letter came back
but the words had been erased.

Perhaps the ultimate proof that O'Brien achieves the goal of her book's title is how the poems recognize how light does not discriminate--it illumines everything it reaches (or hearkens). Thus, we see such lines as
Say sun, say feather, say here

The world trues itself

from "STUTTERSIGHT." This bespeaks a poetics of interconnectedness, where what is interconnected includes what has never been seen but whose existence can be accepted--e.g., from "CAPTIONS" where what is captioned is the drawing of a rectangle the presents the sense of a frame except there's nothing in it:
Weather is abstract until it touches the skin. There is talk of snow beginning, of that instant that has never been captured on film.

Last but not least, catch light is a meditation on photography. And O'Brien does it well because she shows how photographs are not just about what are captured visually but what are left out. It takes poetry to articulate what is invisible. O'Brien's lucidity leaves the reader, as s/he closes the book, a tad more sensitive to the world--manifesting thereof one of poetry's greatest possibilities.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor.  But she is pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA, a collaboration with j/j hastain, is reviewed by Susan Schultz at Jacket2 HERE, and by Amazon.com Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp HERE.  Another book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed by Thomas Fink in Press 1 and by Nicholas Spatafora in OurOwnVoice.

1 comment:

  1. Another view of Sarah O’Brien’s CATCH LIGHT is offered by Neal Leadbeater in GR #21 at