Friday, August 23, 2013

A Poet's Pace: Greg Pape's Four Swans Reviewed by Angela Elles

From my first meeting with Greg Pape, it was obvious to me that this man does not get into a hurry. He is one of those rare humans who listens intentionally, not just waiting for his turn to talk. Greg has been an official mentor to me as part of my work in Spalding University’s Master of Fine Art program. As a teacher and as an artist, Greg is an active listener and the poems in his new book, Four Swans, give attention to the details that often get lost when we push ahead, out of synch with the earth’s rhythms. This latest collection is, in part, a meditation on the messages Greg interprets for us, as he moves through time at a poet’s pace.

The four-part book moves through each of the seasons, beginning in winter, and ending in fall.  The details and correlations of each season are subtly woven in with observations small things with great significance. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm here, where mountains can “float” in the eyes of a child and God is both “great” and “small.”

The tone of reverence for great and small is set with the title poem, “Four Swans.” The speaker is observing swans in January. Once he establishes the image, he goes to the trouble of naming them:
            January. Four white tundra swans
            stand at the edge of the ice.

            Grace. Peace. Dignity. X. (5-7).

To name something is a way to show recognition, love, and maybe even guardianship. The importance of the loving attention inherent in the act of naming resonates throughout the book. Greg uses specific names for places, people and things that star in his poems: His mother, Irene; his poetic ancestor, Su Tung-p’o; his departed rooster, Big Red; and the river, the Bitterroot. They are all named along with the swans out of reverence for their importance.

The remainder of the poem, “Four Swans,” moves between observation of the swans and memory or reflection on serious “real-life” circumstances: The hospitalization of a mother, the tragic consequences of reckless behavior. In many ways the movement of this poem mirrors the movement of the book. The poems often begin in observation of the natural world, and the speaker points to how the human world intersects with nature or how the struggles of nature parallel human suffering. Often this intersection reveals something about how humans grapple with reconciling the cycles of modern life with the cycles of this planet.

These poems seem to be the product of Greg’s “listening” to the silent: animals, the rivers, valleys, rocks and water.  In “Rain on the River he interprets a message from the river:
            forming pockets, temporary cover,
            holding water for trout. Water says
            everything’s temporary, everything’s moving,
            trees, gravel bars, the new house
            where the roofer kneels, nailing shingles,
            in light rain. Look, water says,
            right now, before and after –
            raindrops falling into clouds on the sunlit river.

Greg listens as if channeling these voices confirms that all matter surrounding us is significant and holds a clue to the meaning of our existence if we are able put our finger on the pulse of what is around us.

By the section II of Four Swans, Greg establishes the Bitterroot River of Montana as a key image, emblematic of the natural world.  In the poem “The Spell of the Bitterroot,” human management of the river muddies the scene:

            in many places. Portages abound,
            and no-trespassing signs hang from strands
            of barb-wire strung across braids.
            This is not right.
            But does the river care? It just wants
            to meander, take its own sweet time,
            trust in gravity and the tidal pull
            of eventual dissolution
            in the great peace-making sea. (6-14)

It is interesting that although the speaker is offended, he focuses on the wants of the river. Like the water in “Rain on the River,” Greg gives voice and certain wisdom to the force of the river; this helps the audience to see rivers in a fresh light. The poem ends emphasizing that perspective:
            channels, braids, a continuous flow
            of wild water. Just as we do,
            our river wants to stretch out
            and move freely in its own bed. (41-44)

By acknowledging the intention of the river, Greg allows us understand how our own intentions can be in tune with nature, if we stop to notice the similarities.

The similarities are sometimes small and overlooked by moving through time too quickly. Just as the river will make and “take its own sweet time,” we too must move slower to receive the messages that delight and enlighten us.

As I read this collection, I found myself holding back, not reading too many poems in one sitting. I wanted to savor these poems; I didn’t want to rush through them. This is the effect of poetry that enlightens its reader by minding particular details that enrich the experience of being alive.  
To be present in the days’ miracles, Greg finds that it is essential to operate within the natural tempo of our earth; Greg listens to the earth’s messages, and he shows us what we are missing if we forge ahead too quickly.

ISBN 978-088924-127-2
How to order: From the publisher:

Angela Elles is a resident of Madison, Indiana. A mom, wife, teacher, and student, Angela teaches at Ivy Tech Community College and is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Spalding University.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Previous Exercise: So, How'd It Go?

A few posts back, I posted an exercise as a challenge (see June 7, 2013).  As a teacher I always try to do my own assignments, so I thought I would post a sample of my exercise and encourage readers to do the same.  It is rough; I have done only minimal editing.  So here it is.  And please, post your own.

Biking At Night

Riding the bike through the first neighborhood, I disappear into another world.  The houses are lit up from the inside and the outside, a stage set, like Disney World or Santa Land.  I am biking by them but I am apart, part of another world yet.  Deep.  And cold.  The dips in the road hold a cooler air.  I am breathing in the night, lit by the moon or by my Cat Eye bike light.  My mother is afraid.  She does not like for me to bike at night.  My grandfather used to offer to give me a ride (the quarter of a mile home to my own house).  He is dead now.  I am alive.  Alive in the night.  The world holds me.  I am torn: which way to go?  Down Hatcher?  The road is bumpy, crumbling, enacting Earth’s repo plan.  Besides, Hatcher takes me down past St. Joseph’s cemetery, the one where my great uncle used to let the kids loose and disappear.  At night. Or the Heritage Trail?  Smoother, but still a cemetery.  I cannot take the middle way—Hanging Rock—the police officer chastised me last time (after he handed me my fallen bananas).  I decide on Heritage, put my left arm out to signal.  Sirens tell me that there is an officer racing down Hanging Rock.  Good thing I didn’t go that way.  Passing the valley of the white wooden crosses, I hear what at first I think must be another siren.  Soon I realize it is not a siren, but coyotes.  Their cries could be mistaken for neighborhood dogs, almost, but they tangle and wind the way domestication would not.  A shiver runs through my body that has nothing to do with cold.  I pedal harder.  Around the next curve is a deer.  This time I do not jump (as I did last week, knocking the tail light from my seat post as the deer fled, white tails raised in alarm).  No, this time, neither of us flinches.  The doe watches me glide by.  I watch her.  We see each other we are alive at the same time I turn descend the pavement tilts the bike and me with it IdonotrunofftheroadIaccelerateIamcoldIamcolderIamalive.