Book Review by Mari Werner: An Alphabet of Birds by Toti O’Brien
Los Angeles: Moonrise Press, October 2020; http://www.moonrisepress.com/alphabet-of-birds.html
ISBN 978-1-945938-41-2, paperback, 184 pp, $15.00;
ISBN 978-1-945938-42-9, ebook in ePub, $10.00
In mindfulness meditation, the object of the practice is to be fully present in the moment. In Toti O’Brien’s prose collection, An Alphabet of Birds, the stories are told by a narrator who is keenly in the moment and acutely perceptive—so much so that the reading experience can become like a meditation. This is a prose collection but it’s difficult to nail down whether they’re stories, essays, or prose poems, fiction or creative non-fiction. And it isn’t necessary. These are literary pieces told through a rare and distinctive voice that slips effortlessly from the real to the surreal, and from the outer to the inner world. The details that bring a story to life and bring a universe into the mind of the reader are poured so naturally into the pages that it’s easy to forget one is reading.
The title of the piece, Five Senses, may be something of a representation of the character of the book— except that it turns out not to be limited to five. This particular piece is an intriguing exploration of the perceptions, influences, and decisions that shape or foreshadow the vectors of life from an early age. It begins with the inner story of a small child quenching her thirst for sense, experience, and understanding under the wise tutelage of her grandparents, or out on her own roaming orchards and wild ravines.
Her explorations and the expansion of her world come to life in full detail, but at the same time other senses are invoked in the reader, such as developing a love for the grandfather or feeling the apprehensive chill of another side of the child’s life. “Back in town with her parents, in winter, she’ll start school. When spring and the swallows will come she will return South, Grandma promises. Right. She begins waiting for spring without further ado.”
The words are beautifully written without calling attention to themselves. They conjure another realm without particular regard for the confines of time and the standard definitions of how things work in the ‘real’ world. Most of the pieces are not linear, they ride conceptually in what flows like gliding down a river on a raft.
O’Brien paints both the outer and the inner landscape in vivid detail. In Sunset Walk, the reason for the deep grieving taking place in the inner world of the walker is never revealed, but the grief is interwoven as the outer world plays in full color texture and motion. “And I long for every house, for every life I haven’t lived, feeling both its sweet promise and its irreparable loss.”
Parts of the book are humorous in a wry matter-of-fact way devoid of any self-conscious effort to make you laugh. For example, the squirrel contemplating an orange in Creation: “Judging by the gravity of its frown it must be debating large matters, either the original sin (the type of fruit makes no difference, all round juicy things work, temptation-wise) or else global issues such as climate change, inequality, resource shortage…” Or in Darwin where the reader enters a place in which everyone knows a bird doesn’t fly. “It can’t for a crucial reason, a deal-breaker. Such a feat would take lots of oxygen, and birds talk too much. In fact, they never stop. That is why fish fly, dear, fish only. Because they shut up.” One may be left wondering if other assumptions about the structures of reality have evaporated too.
The pieces, even the humorous ones, are philosophical, but never by way of bringing messages tied up in packages. The narrating voice is deeply inquisitive and observant, not just of physical perceptions and the inner emotional realm, but also of the world at large, the universe, the perennial questions related to being a human on Earth. It raises questions, opens doors, explores ideas—such as this from the first-person piece, September, as the narrator listens to Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy: “Quite a simple message. Sursum corda, be brave, never give up. Isn’t it what Beethoven always intends? He did. The man is long dead. But his notes are resounding against my bones, striking my membranes. They vibrate through my throat, echo within my ears. The composer is dead, but he’s not…I know it is common sense. Still, how common is that? What outlives the body, where, why?”
Though this work visits many different emotions and situations, overall, it provides a collection of clear windows into colors, tastes, textures and music of life that are there to be experienced—if you’re paying attention. This is gifted writing that deserves a broad readership and critical attention.
~ Mari Werner, Claremont, CA
Book Review by Joe DeCenzo: Letters under Rock by Rinne and Thach
Letters under Rock: Performance Poetry by Cindy Rinne and Bory Thach.
ISBN 978-1-334529-0-8, paperback,86x pages. $16.95+S&H. Elyssar Press, 2019.
Letters Under Rock: A Spiritual Emergence Through the Arousal of the Heart
Within the pages of the earth toned cover lives a work to calm an anxious mind and awaken a slumbering spirit. Cindy Rinne and Bory Thach have done more than compose a book of ethereal poetry. They are the parents of a performance art experience conceived from the realms of both eastern and western philosophies and faceted with tradition and lore from an array of cultures. It gestated for a number of months as the artists corresponded in letters which allowed their characters of the orphaned Wanderer and Nomad to channel through them, using them for the vessel as their charismata evolved.
Rather than leap at the reader like a bolting deer, the cover draws you in with its matte finish and placid hues of tan, clary sage and flecks of coral. Coiled koi fish, often seen as a symbol of harmony, perseverance and enduring love swim peacefully above the title. And the screened image of stacked rocks does more than imply the obvious balance we all seek in life. To the yoga master, it’s a meditation practice of quieting the mind while finding patience and intensifying focus. To the Buddhist, it could be a form of worship or request for good luck. While to the hiker/traveler, rock cairns mark rugged trails to aid those seeking a way down from the mountain or out of the forest or most usually a way home.
The introductions by the authors are meaningful in that they afford a glint of insight to the process that produced the work. We are invited to engage our palates for we will taste the flavors of many lands. We’re shown images of the Wanderer and Nomad to enhance visual recognition. We’re also shown a photo of the 12’ x 2’ tapestry sewn by Cindy Rinne which features prominently in the physical presentation of the work. It’s a blend of patterns, colors and textures harmoniously combined to create a collage of their feelings perhaps mementos gathered from their travels. Let the journey begin.
The poetry resides in a series of letters written to each other. The anguish of their separation steadily grows through their endless nights of longing. We get the sense many of the letters were composed late into the night when daylight steals stars from the sky, signs of life begin to stir and another day of searching for their love’s desire begins. It is clear the lovers are one spirit, of one mindset tragically separated by untold miles able only to touch each other dimensionally on a cosmic plane free from physical obstacles. Allusions to the precepts of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and ancient mythology are woven through the pages like silver threads in an heirloom quilt.
The correspondence of the Wanderer and Nomad takes us back to the era when thoughts and feelings were imbued on the material page. When somehow the expression flowed down the arm, past the wrist, through the hands and fingers then impregnated the parchment through the pen. The intent of the sender was tangible with its energy transferred to the receiver once in their grasp. Days of anticipation and feelings of expectancy are palpable as the Nomad and Wanderer await a beneficent courier to deliver the envelope often showing signs of wear from its miles of travel. The stamps and postmarks of different lands, territories and boundaries the message had to cross before its arrival are depicted in the patchwork garments the characters wear and exquisitely evident in the imagery written, “Maple leaves fall in the windblown spring of autumn. Birth and annihilation lead me to your footsteps.” pg.49
The book is divided in sections, each depicting a different phase in the developmental growth of their awareness of each other, their ancestral roots and their dependence on nature. In their respective worlds everything is sentient. The birds that surround them; the insects that pervade; the rocks, trees, stars and moon all breathe their existence. Tenderness and affection are the fundamental essence of their writing. Despite the seclusion and loneliness separation brings, they orbit around the gravitational power of their dreams, “With the cosmos falling apart, you alone make it beautiful… For your face has become a psalm of memory, never to be forgotten.” pg. 35 Each section is sealed with a wax stamp of the author’s emblem, one a heron, the other a dragon to insure privacy and hand of origin.
The Wanderer who is constantly seeking and the Nomad who never settles long in one place convey their sorrows ironically in their depictions of the wonders of nature. Yes, a feeling a melancholy permeates, but they are so connected spiritually there is an underscoring of hope and promise of deliverance as they suffer their isolation, endure their demise and are revived through there souls’ transmigration.
To comprehend this story beyond the printed text, this author encourages you to take a companion of similar perception and read your copy outdoors by firelight during a meteor shower far away from urban distractions that would interrupt the true sounds of Prithvi Mata. For silence isn’t the absence of sound but the acquisition of peace. Take turns reading the passages out loud to each other and to the rocks and leaves. Then listen for their comments. Letters Under Rock reminds us that dreams are eternally ours, but the earth and its trappings are only ours to borrow.
~ Joe DeCenzo, Tujunga, CA
Adrianne Lawson-Pope Reviews Blue and the Blues, Edited by Carole Boyce
Blue and the Blues, Anthology by Pisces Publishing, ed. Carole Boyce
(San Diego, 2021), xii + 56 pp. paperback, color cover, illustrations. $12.
Limited edition 100 copies.
What a Concept! Blue would be more than pleased about this tribute to her essence. This unique anthology brings poets together to glorify the color blue, to write about the emotion of feeling blue and to pay tribute to the genre of blues music. Hues, moods and music; this collection is as varied as poetry can be with a broad spectrum of interpretations, both literal and figurative on each section. The book demonstrates the range and complexity of the creative mind. The author of More Than A Color makes clear to the reader that the actual pigment is viewed as a safety net; a source of comfort and strength, available as needed. In Blue, she says “there’s a shade for every person” and lists some blue colors and emphasizes in the final lines: “I live blue. I speak blue. It’s a language you know. I love blue.”
Other poets speak of blue literally. In The Edge, Georgia Washington writes: “Place emphasis on this gallant shore, where the blue tide rolls in and the waves roar…a place where sand and water meet.” Eileen Carole is also literal in Ruby’s Blue when she says: “I am made to feel small in the middle of God’s great big, blue ocean.”
Indigo Woman, the longest poem in the book, (four pages) by James Evert Jones speaks of a woman: ‘Baby…you make my world indigo. I need to know what you got to make me so blue it’s black, like cool ocean black, like sixties R&B black”…and later blue becomes a verb! “till we get our blue on, till we blue our world away, till we blue ourselves out, till I blue your mind." The intensity and the color repetition tell you this man is in love!
Blues enthusiast, J. Todd Hawkins is historical in his telling of Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly’s Travels…” He would call them joys because they were the farthest thing from the blues he could think of. They were the contra blues, the anti blues, the un blues.” We also get factual information about a famous blues song standard, Down Home Blues in the Sharon Smith-Knight poem tribute to songwriters DC and Selby Miner: “From dusk to dawn they sing the joy and sadness of our cultural core.” If you want to know sadness to its depth, then walk in Loretta Diane Walker’s shoes in Variation On Cancer Blues.
This book is magnificent in its scope in just 56 pages, but there is poetic sustenance on every page. A section of Haikus on the three facets of blue was an interesting footnote to the longer poems. Even in those three short lines; meaning was conveyed. Loretta Diane Walker poignantly stated: “BB King’s voice died/His blues are ghosts on vinyl/Lucille keeps singing”—You can just picture the sunset when Mellonease Wharton writes: “Arizona skies/Rust orange tinted with blue hues/I stand in wonder” —Eileen Carole uses capitalization for visual emphasis when she says: “Blue as deep as sea/Fathoms beyond one can guess/Imagine BLUE blue.”
Each poet was given space for a short bio to credit their other writing undertakings.
Three pieces of artwork defining and complimenting each section were an added bonus to the writings and not often seen in chapbooks. A painting of BB King (UK artist, Alan Hancock) was a natural divider for the music section as he, accompanied by his guitar Lucille has always been known as universally acknowledged King of the Blues. Likewise, there are few images sadder than the woman in Annie Lee’s Blue Monday. Sitting on the edge of the bed with head hung low; the body language says this woman is dreading the start of the work week in no uncertain terms.
Lastly, a photo of a blue piano on the patio of the Los Angeles Sims Library of Poetry was a perfect selection to rejoice in the color blue, since it also shows a quote by Voltaire, “Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great and feeling souls.” The art is in synch with the poetry and the combination is a magic chapbook! As a finishing touch, the editor included a strip of small photos on the back cover heralding blue items, from Henri Matisse’s famous Blue Nude, to the Blue Yusef Lateef jazz album cover; among others. The front cover has a reduced original 18x24 photo collage of 50 plus blue objects by Carole Boyce.
Readers that do not have this ‘blue’ book should give it a read and delve into what it is all about. They might find themselves with a new allegiance or at least a different outlook on color. There is a reason people have a favorite color. If you tap into yours, you may see how its expressed in your life. Poets out there may be encouraged to ‘anthologize’ their own special color and share it with poetry fans everywhere. In conclusion, Blue & The Blues has set the standard.
NOTE The reviews have been published in February 2021 in the CSPS Poetry Letter No. 1, 2021, edited by Maja Trochimczyk, in PDF format, emailed to members and posted on the society's website: CaliforniaStatePoetrySociety.org.