Chapbook Review: Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy

Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy
Written by Natalie Peeterse
Gold Line Press, 2012
ISBN 9781105543609

Black Birds Blue HorseNatalie Peeterse’s first chapbook, Black Birds : Blue Horseis a poetic sequence, an elegy, dedicated to Nicole Dial, who was gunned down, with three others, in Kabul, Afghanistan, by Taliban fighters. Dial had dedicated her life to helping children, opening schools in Afghanistan as a member of the International Rescue Committee. It is thus proper to commemorate this chapbook to Dial, and to invoke, in two epigraphs, the spirit of Lorca (shamelessly and brutally stolen from us in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War) and of Czeslaw Milosz, that recently late, great poet of witness. Peeterse’s Black Birds : Blue Horse, features the dense surrealist imagery of Lorca and the urgent, intimate sense of purpose of Milosz—however, she also channels the emotional and poetic dexterity of Muriel Rukeyser and June Jordan. The ample spacings mid-line and sudden line-breaks are in keeping with these latter two poets’ similar verse styles. (They, too, are poets of witness). Peeterse’s chapbook is thus historical, raw, context-heavy, and incisive. Her subject is multifold: not just Dial, not just the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, but also the conflicts at home, in Washington, D.C., which partly comprises this sequence in several brief, but intimate (and world-weary) fragments of the speaker’s journey through that city.

The poem opens with Peeterse’s speaker being informed of a young woman’s sudden death. We can assume that the speaker is the poet, her addressee—the dead girl—is Dial. The poet-speaker wakes to gunfire:

One two : three four:  then two more :
gunshots.         I wake to some kind of tactical
counter-terrorism exercise, or some kind
of national emergency or
the dead body of a girl on the glittering road.
Either way, wind outside.       In waves.
The heat blasts on       and
off. I roll over and answer the phone : hello?

Dial initiates us into a steady beat of gunshots—which are not unusual for the setting—“tactical / counter-terrorism exercise . . . national emergency”. The familiarity of the sounds, eventually linked to the hot winds outside, indicating summertime, deflates any sense of danger or fear begotten from these “gunshots”. The confusion of the source of sounds—the “gunshots” are not really gunshots—emphasizes the speaker’s disorientation, having just woken from sleep to gunfire-wind-the phone ringing . . . “hello?”

Peeterse, through these opening lines and throughout the rest of the sequence, achieves the feat of incorporating sensory experience into commentary—the dead girl on “the glittering road,” for example, alludes to the nature of the phone call, and the nature of this elegy. This command of sensory presence and commentary (as woven together intimately) extends and culminates at certain points, such as the poem midway through this sequence:

At the equinox of a stranger and the self
day and night are everywhere of equal length, it seems–
and so things are possible
and so              precarious the ghetto doors
blown open in the running wind.
Plywood thumps and booms all day here
and all these baby girls–
their voices like swallows. The tiny hinges
of a thousand shoes and precious ankles
move forward :           to the windows of our fear.
Press your face to the glass like a girl does
when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings.

The first line, “At the equinox . . .”, sounds so much like a line out of Lorca. Things are possible. And is not that the entire statement of this elegy? That things are happening, and can happen, at any moment. In keeping with Rukeyser’s influence (assuming, and hoping, Peeterse has read her), the elegy resembles somewhat one of Rukeyser’s masterworks, Waterlily Fire, about the fiery destruction of one of Monet’s waterlily panels: “Who will not believe a waterlily fire. / Whatever can happen in a city of stone, / What can come to a wall can come to this wall.” As if answering this earlier work, Peeterse’s command, “move forward :  to the windows of our fear. . . . when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings,” brims with fright and possibility—the voices of swallows, the children (Dial’s purpose in life), the refusal to look away at the window of fear, all call us to look with eyes leveled at the impossible, at our fears, those palpable “thumps and booms.”

Black Birds : Blue Horse is an intimate sequence, that takes great leaps and firmly centers the reader in the immediate experience—Dial’s presence in Afghanistan, the speaker-poet’s mundane walks through D.C. (“Tonight, though, the streets are shiny and unencumbered by your eyes— / slicked over with doubt : that cruel biology of the spirit.”) Peeterse calls us to (peaceful) arms against alienation, against our fears, against turning away, and against silence. “At the equinox of a stranger and the self,” any thing is possible.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: The Chameleon Couch

The Chameleon Couch
Written by Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
ISBN 9780374533144

“I am a black man, a poet, a bohemian, / & there isn’t a road my mind doesn’t travel” (17-18 “Poppies”).  Yusef Komunyakaa’s first Whitmanesque “I am”-statement comes about midway through his latest collection of poems, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).  By this point in the book, we have already read several of his eclogues, odes, and litanies, among other familiar forms the master employs.  The poem, “Poppies,” reminds us of his body of work, which, throughout the years, has consistently demonstrated his recognizable rhythmic voice and his unquestionable command of image and form.  The poppies, whose vibrant colors spill over the poem like a watercolor swath, becomes a metaphor for both beauty (tucked in a gypsy’s hair) and devastation (climbing and descending hills, swarming barbed wire fences).  Here, the poet depicts a victim on a train to Auschwitz, observing the passing fields of poppies, and noting the strange, brutal juxtaposition of beauty and terror—and also noting beauty’s inability to save the body from this inevitable terror.  But the soul—the soul of the poet passes from body to body, as if each one is a vessel, fixed in history and circumstance, but ever welcoming the poet’s fluidic, ahistoric voice.  Then comes the poet’s “I am”-statement, and we are immediately reminded of the title of this collection,Chameleon Couch–in other words, the seat from which Komunyakaa observes, identifies, and becomes.

Komunyakaa utilizes “I am”-statements throughout this collection, further suggesting the unconfined spirit of his voice.  In the poem, “Flesh,” he remarks,

… Unbelievable

as I am, I shall say this: if I am Beatrice

or Beatitude, muse or pale siren, I am flesh

born to another dream of flesh. If I am clay,

it is the same merciless clay you are made of,

with a red vein of iron running through it, (4-9)

Chameleon CouchThe “red vein of iron” connects all things; it is the portal through which the soul passes and is a part of a greater soul, which all things compose.  Here, the poet identifies with each alternating persona, recognizing and commenting on the aforementioned spiritual connection.  The poem, and by extension the collection, invokes Whitman,Neruda (whom Komunyakaa celebrates in the poem “Nighttime Begins with a Line By Pablo Neruda”), and even Borges, particularly the Argentinian’s “The Circular Ruins,” in which Borges’s protagonist seeks to conceive another human being through means of dreaming.

Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch is a work of great complexity, a myriad collection of  subjects, eternally connected by a common poetic voice.  The book is proof of the Komunyakaa’s expertise, which has not waned since the start of his prolific literary career.  He acknowledges his influences, and at the same time asserts himself as influential through the power of his verse and the adaptability of his voice.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved