Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu is a mixture of
striking language and beautiful imagery, and in some places (to me anyway)
somewhat impenetrable constructions. Ang makes liberal use of the surrealist
convention, which sometimes works well, and sometimes not. Interestingly,
amid the predominance of non-referential phrasing, there are flashes of
literality which, by way of contrast, lie like gems amid more opaque and
Perhaps the best way to approach Ang's volume is thematically, by which one
begins to get a sense of her persistent concerns, which in fact are many and
encompass mirroring, pain, death, transformation, human frailty, the passing
of time, violence, the fragmenting of identity, illness, loss of control, and
silence. There are other themes present no doubt, though these I think are
key for Ang. If one is inclined to find symbols, there is much to work with,
as Ang makes frequent use of imagery evoking the abovementioned thematic
elements, especially death in the latter portion of her collection; she seems
especially drawn to animals, mirrors, water, blood, the sun, and insects.
The first piece in the collection, 'A Sun That Isn't a Source of Heat But
Instead Paints Its Grief on the Walls of a Private Room,' is nicely chosen,
as it exemplifies many of Ang's concerns seen throughout her collection. Her
imagery is potent here, packing in much for the reader:
The mirror is
a lesson in stillness, in watching the room
as it takes
place behind your left shoulder.
mother, the clock wipes its face over and over
glass in one of the paintings now appears
to the right
of the bird with the broken wing.
A stray wind
sucks the curtains into a perverse tango.
You watch a
rat occupy that portion of the room
were told to sit and have a drink.
another hand, scarred where an extra finger
the sun away for its own good.
lit to represent soul and the burning
of material effects.
Now the hand
is brushing the hair of a dead woman
semblance of order.
Certainly with poems of a surrealist bent it's counterproductive to try to
say what a poem 'means,' but here if Ang's aim is to evoke, she has done
well. The mirror in the first line conjures doubling, a portal also; 'Like a
mother, the clock wipes its face over and over / with its hands' is
particularly nice, with unexpected juxtapositions ('The wine glass in one of
the paintings') and images of decay following soon on, with a feeling of
ill-ease or perhaps a dangerous omen as wind sucks curtains 'into a perverse
tango'; here I can't help thinking of Poe. The poem seems to be a meditation
on decay, identity, and impermanence, the final lines, 'Now the hand is
brushing the hair of a dead woman / into some semblance of order. // Or
beauty,' perhaps an ironic take on Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. Ang's
collection is worth a read, for poems like this.
Kendall's Joy Change is a series of poetic meditations on being a
foreigner in Japan, a nation where one can never hope to fully fit in. In a
sense her book is travel literature at its best, in that she begins with the
unstated premise that all she describes will be through the lens of a biased
observer, never fully convinced of the validity of her observations, never
sure if what she is seeing is real or the projection of an outsider; it is
this tentativeness that gives the book its charm. Some poems in the
collection work better than others though, and at times one feels Kendall is
perhaps trying a bit too hard to get something out of situations that might
simply be experienced rather than mined for meaning. Yet overall the
collection succeeds in giving one the feel of a foreigner both intrigued with
and perplexed by a society that continues to be seen as hermetic to
Early in her collection in a key piece, 'Eye of the Storm,' Kendall
identifies with ethnic Koreans living in Japan, '... whose victory comes / from
laying to one side their shame / and stripping off their cloaks of local
names / to claim their rights as victims //. Here where foreigners are known
/ as 'outside people'. / Like crows / Never let in'. The final stanza of the
poem, perhaps emblematic of how she feels about being a foreigner in a place
where by definition one can never be one of the natives:
to the inner
hover at Kanazawa castle gate,
(mistakes expected, standards lowered),
rigours of politeness,
that are wise exult in this permission to be odd,
that to rip the mannered surface
take them to the quiet eye of the storm.
And here it is that Kendall revels also in the paradox of living in Japan for
the Westerner, one is both bound by a culture one cannot truly understand,
yet granted unexpected freedom as well. Some of the best pieces in this
collection are where Kendall relaxes and drops the critical eye of a
foreigner, simply recording her subjective impressions, as in 'Eiheiji,' a
mediation on a visit to a mountain temple retreat:
into the mountain
the scent of
In addition, Kendall's modest forays into haiku provide a nice interlude,
furnishing a pause from some of her more self-conscious reflections on self
and other: 'writing the evening / brushstrokes on paper, barefoot / on the
veranda,' and 'drifting / mountains shoulder the sky / blotches of pine' are
credible bows to this venerable Japanese tradition, and add a pleasing tone.
Judy Kendall's Joy Change is worth the read for anyone
interested in Japan, or simply well-crafted verse.
France's You are Her, pivots around a section on nature,
cultivation, and artifice, inspired by the life and accomplishments of
Capability Brown, a landscape architect born in Northumberland in 1716,
though delves also into explorations of death, time, identity, the body,
loneliness, perception, transformation, and language through frequent use of
metaphors of the breaking, fragility, dissolution, and ultimately
regeneration of the body and psyche. France's collection is thematically
joined by concerns relating to transformation, natural and facilitated by
man. Some transformations are pleasing, some of human artifice, and some
painful, like bodily injury, though ultimately presenting the chance for
regeneration, even spiritual epiphany. Though drawing heavily from nature and
animal imagery, bone seems to be France's core metaphor, one guesses as a
meditation on an injury she suffered in 1995, and its effects on her view of
One thing I liked about France's collection, and this is something one hopes
to find in a poet, is that many lines and stanzas stand alone as memorable
and worth rereading. In 'Dying in My Sleep,' her first piece, she writes: 'When
I woke up I was dead; / the
memory of how it happened / like a lift shaft on the outside / of the
high-rise of my body.' Here are lines, nicely built, which in a few words
evoke a philosophical conundrum, the idea of life as a dream. But in France's
poem the dream is ominous, as she writes in the fourth stanza, 'Ground floor
was knowing / I was dead and this is what / it feels like: utterly empty, /
wide open. And still not over.' Perhaps a corrective response to ecstatic
Near Death Experiences, or the realization that 'waking up dead' means still
One of France's shorter yet poignant poems is 'Knitbone,' which for me evokes
the physical and psychic trauma of injury, but also healing, the
vulnerability yet recuperative strength of the body: Here she writes:
fooled by my soft folds.
I feel the earth
and fix bones.
as all the
best things are,
mend what is
the cue of all
soothing what is sore,
If you know
need, why ignore
remedy? Let me bring my way
with bones to
all your blindness.
Look again at
my pleated creams:
See how I
am bell and lantern.
the smell of morning rain.
Another noteworthy aspect of France's verse is its geographic rootedness, as
in 'Stagshaw Fair,' which she tells us is the 'fell near Dere Street in
Northumberland where there was a fair from Roman times up until the early
twentieth century when it was decided it was a danger to public morality,'
amusing in its irony, yet evocative also of another theme that runs through
her work, loss of historical locality. Stanza two reads: 'I know this place,
these roads, like my own bones / and also love its secrets. I've walked / the
fair, the north, inside myself. Its stones / are fallen walls, markers where
the way forked.' Finally, on the theme of transformation, no better piece
than France's excerpt from 'The Life Cycle of the Dragonfly':
I am what
on a leaf
when the fly has flown,
when the dark
If the sun is
wants to rise toward it.
I heard wind
What is this
I had to do?
Shed skin and
bone, the soul in me,
all the gold
I was wet
as the eye of
in the roof
of my back,
I was the same
different, a self-portrait
green, a seed set free.
© Howard Giskin 2010