Review of Bamboo Church by Ken Babstock

Books in Canada – January/February 2004:

Bamboo Church
Ricardo Sternberg
McGill-Queen’s University Press
65 pages, paper
ISBN: 0773525661

by Ken Babstock

How sing under such weather?
arte povera, arte povera

Rhetoric torqued to a whisper,
the lunar syntax of dispossession

stuck in the throat of the meek.
She strikes a rhythm off turtle shells

Finding a way to sing is exactly what Ricardo Sternberg’s poems concern themselves with throughout Bamboo Church. And he employs almost as many different approaches and strategies for doing so as there are poems in the collection. In “Florida Reprieve”, the poem quoted above—a piece in two sections written in unrhymed couplets of varying three- and four-beat lines—there are audible currents and associative images streaming back to Wallace Stevens’s famous “The Idea of Order at Key West”; most notably in the second section where the grief-struck woman introduced in the opening, concludes the poem at the shore, “Still, wired to the seasons/for this brief, singular moment//she sings for the sake of singing/this storm this engine this love.” What wonderful elision and crunching of syntax over that last line break where the ear expects commas. And only a few pages earlier, in another carefully drawn portrait of a woman (“Plateia Kyriakou”), I was put in mind of Randal Jarrell’s freakishly intimate knowledge of the inner sadnesses of those nameless people in crowds we pass in the street. Though these subjects are never just parts of crowds to Jarrell, or Sternberg, but always near-perfect portraiture that speaks volumes through intense particularity. We see something of ourselves in an elderly rheumatic Greek woman feeding the town’s stray cats. How tempting it would be to click shut a short lyric like this on a glib note of faux-Folksy wisdom, but Sternberg again finds a stroke of mystery through sound, and opens the poem outward: “a curse thrown to the gods/for having left to fate/(such poor provider)/the many cats of Molivos,/and they are all hungry.”

There is often a conflating of terms when books of poems are the topic of discussion. We speak of an author “revealing their influences,” and in doing so, convey our very clever detection of a mild, though surmountable, weakness in their work. This is surely true in some cases, but such assertion demands qualification, especially in the case of poets whose deep reading keeps them steeped in the living tradition to the extent that moving forward, for them, becomes a matter of “acknowledging their masters.” Self-effacement before the greats; cards on the table; conversations with the dead—these are expressions of a valid, and admirable, aesthetic stance. The literature of the past becomes a constellation of weighted utterance one can choose to block out no more than one could walk out from under the night sky. If, on the other hand, you opt to throw your cards in with Rimbaud and piss all over the existing order, you’d best pray to Whomever that you’re a blistering frickin’ genius…and have a back-up business plan.

Echoes abound in Bamboo Church. In a deftly rhymed pair of sestets, called “Quark”, a meditation on absence as presence, Sternberg paraphrases Cyril of Thessalonika positing god as “the Zero at the core of all creation,” and we hear a background shiver of Emily Dickinson’s “Zero at the bone”. These are two religious sensibilities that vary wildly in their Awe and Fear quotients, but Sternberg can use opposite energies to great effect; setting up an internal debate within 12 lines. In “Florida Reprieve”, quoted above, we get “aimlessness is an art” and hear Sternberg stepping gently to one side of, I’ll guess, one of his dearest masters, Elizabeth Bishop. (It’s not a wild guess, her elegant and obsessive craftsmanship is all over these poems—one is even called “The Fish”—and Sternberg himself shows up in her Collected Letters.) Again, in “Duplexity”, where the word “argument” appears in the second line, we hear Robert Frost grumbling near a snow drift in the middle distance. In its entirety:

Not like a broken record;
more like an argument
continually branching, fractal:

the derelict heart
reiterates its forked design.

Where two roads diverge
its choice is not to choose

but to travel both.

The heart lives other lives, whether or not we willingly send it off in search of them. Sternberg, along with many contemporaries (Steven Heighton and Don Coles spring to mind) have taken the opportunity to enrich the lived life with the heart’s imaginings. It can, as in a poem like “Moscow Circus”, account for the appearance of the numinous amid the scripted days of the body:

By now pronounced, these wings
do not disturb me much
except when a strong wind blows
or strangers ask to touch.

Still, there are advantages:
I’m able on cold nights
to wrap my girl in comfort
while she, in turn, delights

in the erotica of feathers.

A clutch of the poems in Bamboo Church, written in tight form, either metrically or using half-rhymes, and approaching a mundane subject with an essayist’s voice, falter in an inability to draw any worthwhile conclusion from the attempted allegory. “Mobius Strip”, where Spinoza’s thoughts on love are paraphrased and taken as evidence of the mechanics of give-and-take between lovers, felt pat, and too reliant on Spinoza having done most of the work. “Thumb”, though it catalogues a number of amusing assessments of that individualist digit by other writers, took me nowhere special with its closing lines: “The inclinations printed on the thumb/contest the vagaries of the free willed heart.” To which one could answer “What doesn’t?” And in the oft-visited death-and-disposal-of-small-otherwise-helpless-animal poem called “Mouse”, even the crinkled, formalized sentence structures feel willed and unconvincing: “”What is the mouse to me/that I should now regret/ his death//who, with such delight,/cocked the trap/that did him in?” All poets write these poems at home, and they please us, but winning a spot in a collection is something else.

Sternberg is fantastic in strict forms when he slides between buttoned-up and more conversational registers. “Blue Letters” is an epistle to an ex-lover who harbours some serious grievances. It’s written in short-lined couplets of perfect rhyme and uses wrapped sentences to great effect; maintaining a tone of intimacy while allowing the reader their due enjoyment on finding themselves privy to such information.

What of me since I left you?
I travelled—then settled here
and may stay another year
or two. I enjoy my place,
the white-washed walls, the terrace
that opens to all the blue
I could ever wish. It’s true
that indifference has not come
as it does, it seems, to some.

It immediately made me want to attempt a Xerox copy of the poem in my own hand, as did a number of these poised, loving, deeply believable, and deeply informed poems: “Pleasure”, “Moscow Circus”, “Elephant Rock Beach”, “Trapeze”, “Marcel” and “Florida Reprieve” among others. Which would place Sternberg inside my own constellation of utterances I’ll be arguing with in the future. And isn’t this the project, to get inside the head of someone, then stay; reader, writer, lover, or otherwise? God knows we can’t stay here.

Ken Babstock’s most recent collection of poems is Days into Flatspin (Anansi, 2001).