I have a bird to whistle

Review of Robert Okaji’s chapbook of poems, I Have a Bird to Whistle (Luminous Press, 2019, 27 pages), by Gary Gautier

Beautifully crafted, each poem is an uneasy marriage of image and concept, of fullness and emptiness. Each is suggestive without yielding a fixed meaning. Meaning, like the sense-rich images, follows geometric curves through space to the vanishing point. The logic moving through each poem is like an extended haiku concatenation, jumping from one discrete image or cluster to another sometimes unrelated one. So far, so good. But the discontinuity, suggestive as it is, is sometimes too much, and I wish Okaji had given us a more stable throughline to hang onto as we move across the flow of language. When I set these prose-poem paragraphs against Okaji’s pre-existing work (see his blog here), for my taste he flourishes better with the more traditional poetic line structure. Still, those who revel in the sheer beauty of poetic language, in the compression of image and concept, in this case coming in bite-sized, one-paragraph chunks, will be pleased with this short collection.

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The Life of the Bee

Naturalists just don’t write with the same style and imaginative power as they did 100 years ago, as in this excerpt from “The Life of the Bee” (Maurice Maeterlinck, 1901).

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“The queen started laying again in the first days of February. The workers have flocked to the willows and nut-trees, gorse and violets, anemones and lungworts. Then spring invades the earth, and cellar and stream with honey and pollen, while each day beholds the birth of thousands of bees. The overgrown males now all sally forth from their cells, and disport themselves on the combs; and so crowded does the too prosperous city become that hundreds of belated workers, coming back from the flowers towards evening, will vainly seek shelter within, and will be forced to spend the night on the threshold, where they will be decimated by the cold. Restlessness seizes the people, and the old queen begins to stir. She feels that a new destiny is being prepared. She has religiously fulfilled her duty as a good creatress; and from this duty done there result only tribulation and sorrow; she will soon be forced to quit this city of hers, where she has reigned. But this city is her work, it is she, herself . . . . She has peopled it with her own substance; and all who move within its walls – workers, males, larvae, nymphs, and the young princesses whose approaching birth will hasten her own departure …

“What is this ‘spirit of the hive’ . . . that after the queen’s impregnation, when flowers begin to close sooner … will coldly decree the simultaneous and general massacre of every male? It allots their task to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvae, the ladies of honour who wait on the queen and never allow her out of their sight; the house-bees who air, refresh, or heat the hive by fanning their wings, and hasten the evaporation of the honey that may be too highly charged with water, the architects, masons, wax-workers, and sculptors who form the chain and construct the combs, the foragers who sally forth to the flowers in search of the nectar that turns into honey, of the pollen that feeds the nymphs and the larvae, the propolis that welds and strengthens the buildings of the city, or the water and salt required by the youth of the nation. Its orders have gone to the chemists who ensure the preservation of the honey by letting a drop of formic acid fall in from the end of their sting; to the capsule-makers who seal down the cells when the treasure is ripe, to the sweepers who maintain public places and streets most irreproachably clean, to the bearers whose duty it is to remove the corpses, and to the amazons of the guard who keep watch on the threshold by night and by day . . . .

“Finally, it is the spirit of the hive that fixes the hour of the great annual sacrifice to the genius of the race: the hour, that is, of the swarm; when we find a whole people, who have attained the topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power, suddenly abandoning to the generation to come their wealth and their palaces, their homes and the fruits of their labour; themselves content to encounter the hardships and perils of a new and distant country.”

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New Age of the Scarlet Letter

In this New Age of the Scarlet Letter, where we look not for the good in people (or literature or art history) but for anything we can use to label them as racist, sexist, and generally unwoke, we need to find cultural role models we can join together and all look up to. That’s where The Dude comes in.

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The hippies have a quiet moment

The passage below captures a quiet moment early in the novel (circa 1969) for our hippies (click images for links).

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(4.4 out of 5 stars in 19 Amazon reviews so far)

“That’s really good,” said Pepper, and she looked back up at the sky.

The others ate in silence, enjoying the crickets, the bird chatter of dusk, and the occasional sound of a VW bug torqueing around the potholes on St. Roch Street. Ragman bussed the plates and refilled the wine.

“That’s why I never did LSD after that first time with Gina and Tex,” Pepper continued, as if there were no pause. “It was cool at first but then the long agony of coming down. I remember driving across the 24-mile bridge at night and seeing monsters coming out of the water with each turn of the waves, over and over in a hellish rhythm. And then I felt all the organs inside my body splitting open. I could see them and feel them tearing. Fuck that.”

Rag was lighting two tiki torches at the ends of the table.

“What the hell were you doing driving while tripping?” he asked.

“I wasn’t driving. Tex was.”

“Oh, that makes it all better,” joked Zig. “TEX was driving while tripping.” They chuckled at the reckless absurdity of it all, knowing that at least this time all turned out safe.

“But listen,” Jazmine said, thinking now of the tan acid from Ragman’s hideaway closet lab. “You could even do this stuff, Pepper. There is no long, dark coming down part.”

Rag fired up a joint. The match momentarily lit up his face. The hazel eyes gleamed, the cheekbones more prominent as they tapered down to the point of the light brown beard. He looked for a moment like one of the plastic devil heads that come from claw machines. He inhaled hard on the joint and then passed it to Zig, who sat on the bench next to him across from Pepper and Jaz. As Rag momentarily held the pot in his lungs, Jazmine could see a note of concentration in his face.

“What are you thinking, Rag?” she asked quietly.

Rag was equally quiet as he spoke: “This shit could change everything.”

Zig took his hit and passed the joint to Jazmine. The earthy sweet smell of marijuana mixed with the citronella fuel of the tiki torches and wrapped the four faces at the table into their own world. Jazmine, with her dark eyes and ivory glow, fiery Pepper with the ice blue eyes, Zig with his rectangular face framed by long curling black locks, and Ragman: faces close together, dimly lit against the darkening sky, all feeling the wrap and pull of pot-forged kinship, but the attention was on Ragman.

“You ever heard of William Blake?” Jaz suddenly asked. “Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, the visionary poems?”

“I like the concept,” Rag said.

“I like the images,” Jaz smiled.

“I like the conversation,” Ziggy threw in roguishly.

“Well, kumbaya, motherfuckers, I’d like a hit off that joint,” said Pepper, breaking more fully the gravity of the scene. Now everything was light again. The focus on Ragman had shifted.

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