Review of Bamboo Church by Ewan Whyte

Globe and Mail
July 26, 2003

Bamboo Church

By Ricardo Sternberg

McGill_Queen’s University Press

65 pages, $16.95

At once graceful and accessible, Ricardo Sternberg’s third book of poetry Bamboo Church is remarkable for its lyricism and humour. While not as unified as his previous book, Map of Dreams , this varied collection contains beautifully crafted poems in which characters step from the ordinary to the supernatural, and humorous yarns that parody myth with boldness and subtlety. Some poems affectionately recall Sternberg’s childhood in Brazil, some are narrated by personae he has created or appropriated from sources as disparate as the Bible and Aesop’s Fables. Almost all of his poetry is of a gently mystical tone.

The predominant theme of this book is the idea of the sacred or god (and the absence of God), but it is not expressed in an earnest or traditionally religious way.

She would drift into the kitchen

trailing fragments of a hymn that

spoke of God,

a river, the pair of golden wings

that would be hers on Judgment

Day

and were you to look at her then

you might well decide your best bet

for a meal would be to eat out.

A divine presence is to be found in the most domestic of environments or contemplating an ant, a thumb, quarks, or Marcel Marceau.

Sternberg’s take on Bible stories is a delight to anyone who has been subjected to the Sunday school versions when they were young. In Parable:

Disguised as a camel

the millionaire broke

through the gates

of heaven.

Brazen, that camel

brayed in the choir,

sang his rough hosannas

out of key.

The millionaire gatecrasher, once recognized, is:

stripped of harp,

halo and wings

then sent hurtling

into darkness.

Noah’s wife produces the rainbow as a gesture of domestic reconciliation, and Jonah soliloquizes, wholly unimpressed by the almighty:

No doubt he is making

inordinate demands:

that I build him an ark

or slay my first born

or move to the suburbs

where, covered in ash
I impress upon the deaf

the magnificence of the word.

The tower of Babel “was not arrogance,” but “love giving shape to its yearning.” This yearning for transcendence is found throughout the book.

The warmth with which Sternberg writes about characters from his past is entirely unsentimental. Dancing with his aunt when he was a child, he remembers in First Dance:

Such a wealth of buttocks

would have slowed the walk

of anyone but (praise be to God!)

it proved mere ballast

to the strut of aunt Dolores.

One of Sternberg’s imagined characters, an Angel, finds unorthodox work:

By now pronounced,

these wings

do not disturb me much

except when a strong wind blows

or strangers ask to touch. …

Engaged by the Moscow

Circus, I stunned those atheists

when under The Arc of Light

wings extended, I suddenly appeared

between Dwarf and The Lady With a Beard.

Sternberg infuses his verse with original imagery that charms the reader and inspires wonder, elevating the commonplace to the magical. Carrots nail down fields, a lettuce leaf becomes the shroud of an expired mouse, a broom whispers from the closet to be let out to dance. Despite these whimsical qualities, and Sternberg’s predilection for the comic, this is serious poetry. It reminds us that laughter and pleasure are also serious. If poetry is a form of secular prayer, as it appears to be in Sternberg’s imagination, these poems have a suitable home. This is lighter poetry, but strong, as befits a Bamboo Church rather than a cathedral of stone.

Ewan Whyte’s translation of the poems of Catullus will be published this fall.