Review of Bamboo Church, by Jeffery Donaldson

University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 74, Number 1, Winter 2004/5
Letters in Canada
Jeffery Donaldson
Ricardo Sternberg’s Bamboo Church is as lovely, airy, and trimmed as its front cover (where the white paperboard has been lattice-cut into the shape of a cage, showing a bird on the frontispiece page behind it). The hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) motif returns to us here, in this image as in the poems themselves. Love and love’s protocols are named here, in a low-key, hot afternoon, comely lyricism of shaped couplets and quatrains. Sternberg works in a quasi-parable style with an Audenesque conversational ease, a kind of politesse in voice and manner that brings you around, with restful confidence, to the always plumb, copious, apt word. In a poem about a cleaning servant that recalls Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Manuelzinho,’ Sternberg offers an empathizing poetics that underlines what he sees as the insubstantiality of what the poet provides:

… the objects you invoke

appear on stage yet never leave

the realm of pure ideas.

… Not the table but its essence

upon which you now carefully lay,

first that billowing tablecloth,

then, fragrant and steaming,

the idea of broth and of spoons

in the house of the hungry.

There is more Bishop to be heard in a lovely rejoinder to her similarly titled ‘The Fish,’ and some George Herbert there as well, the seventeenth-century quasi-secular religious. Herbert’s ‘Love (III)’ stands warmly echoed in the volume’s opening poem, which again invokes something of the poet’s implied faith that poems are a sustaining food:

… she vaguely addressed the garlic,

the onion, the tomato and between her hands

rubbed a sprig of rosemary over olive oil.

A fragrance then arose and you decided

you had best sit down. And you did.

… She returned and a generous bowl

was placed in front of you.

Then she crossed her arms and waited:

her prayer done, your eating was its Amen.
This fine book makes Herbert’s inviting summons to the poet’s feast: ‘You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.’