Review of Bamboo Church by W.J. Keith

Canadian Book Review
Annual 2003 (2004)
Sternberg, Ricardo
Bamboo Church

W.J. Keith
“Consider quarks”, “Sweetie, consider Spinoza.” These opening lines of two poems in Bamboo Church succinctly reveal Sternberg’s range and tone. The first entitled “Quark,” comments on the current scientific hypotheses with an almost metaphysical wit, while the second, “Mobius Strip,” with a similar combination of audacity and irreverence, invokes the “God-or Nature” philosopher within a sensual love poem. Sternberg can shift joyously in his language between the learned (one of his titles is in Greek) and the puckishly colloquial (that delightful “Sweetie”). these poems celebrate mind and body, sacred and profane, with an urbane and infectious enthusiasm that is highly endearing.
Here are poems for all tastes. The love poems can be unabashedly erotic (“Pleasure”) or wittily detached (“Supply=Demand,” based on the imagery of traditional economics). A poem on the death of John the Baptist, narrated by the dad victim, begins startlingly and unforgettably: “How my head came to be on that platter?/ Mother and daughter had the hots for me.” “Kinetic Study, ” set in a church service but about a woman’s sexually stimulating walk, explores the “moving” in both senses.
Sternberg revels in unusual words (“Duplexity,” “fractal”) , but even more in placing words in unusual juxtapositions, as in “the alternating/circuitry of the bed.” Religious words (“grace,” etc.) are likely to appear in erotic contexts. the couple in “Nice” (itself a pun) had taken “vows,” but vows that “crazy -glued them / one to the other at Golden Gate Park.” He can also display a consummate and daring technique. “Solo Flight” employs the complex traditional forms of the sestina, obeying the formal rules but subtly undercutting them by shifting from “pilot” to “Pontius Pilate”!
The final poem, “Tomatoes,” represents, I suspect, postmodernism (whatever that may be) at its best. Tourists buy “five tomatoes” but receive also the family history of the vendor, where once again religious and secular (plus commercial) elements are intermixed, the true subject not tomatoes but the “meandering” of roads, stories, and human lives.
Bamboo Church is not only a delightful book, but (thanks to McGill-Queen’s University Press) it is also a beautifully produced one.