Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sonja de Vries

One of the best things about having a book is the book swap.  At Spalding's Homecoming, I swapped books with Sonja de Vries and came home (this time literally) with a lovely little collection that I am just beginning to dive into.  The chapbook, Planting a Garden in Baghdad, is a book about current conflict, yes, but it begins by looking back.  And it does not speak of war so much in sweeping terms, but on a human scale.  The primary unit of this book is the human body.

In Amsterdam, Hunger Winter 1944, the body becomes a grazer, a forager:

Late at night, everyone asleep,
I stood in the kitchen enjoying
the quiet, nibbling like a mouse
on potato skins and dry root vegetables.
They tasted like nothing;
air with a crunch, wind with a
body, but I liked the feeling of
their flesh in my mouth.
I imagined it was the flesh of
a young soldier, his
upper thighs, smooth and salty
thrumming with blood.  My
stomach rumbled, I swallowed
the last skin, slipped
back into bed, next to the warm
bodies of my brother and sister.

The language of the poem is spare, pared down, as its subject and as life must necessarily be during war time.  The body is an animal but the being (the narrator) is an animal endowed with language.  So she nibbles like a mouse, but since she is aware of her mousiness, she is not a mouse at all.  Though she tastes nothing, she still gives the taste particularity, as "air with a crunch, wind with a/ body..."  Even the air has become a body.  The skins of the root vegetables become the skin of the soldier.  The hierarchy of existence blurs and the barriers between elements and organisms matter less, separation falls away, and the connectedness of everything rises to the foreground.  Just when things seems most segregated-- soldier from civilian, the desire for food from the desire for flesh, waking from sleeping-- the parts come together and the whole, always there, always in balance, is apparent. 

The vehicle for this reunion of dichotomies is the imagination, which is the driving force behind this poem in the first place.  By choosing the first person point of view, de Vries supplies the necessary imagination to bring the reader not into a historical account but rather one that seems more immediate.  Such is the wonder of this book.  The small seed of each poem casts roots down into the dirt of history but also sprouts and branches into the air of the present.  I am looking forward to reading more.


Sonja de Vries is a Kentucky-born writer, filmmaker, and radical social justice activist.  She believes that art is integral to creating a deep and lasting transformation of society.  She lives on a farm outside Louisville where she grows food and raises chickens.  She lives with her youngest son Devlin and partner Beth; her oldest sons, musician Shadwick Wilde and Jake de Vries, live in Louisville.

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