Saturday, March 6, 2010

Attractive Opposites: A review of Sarah Browning's Whiskey in the Garden of Eden and Arthur Sze's The Ginkgo Light

The following review was written by guest reviewer and 2010 Split This Rock panelist, Bob Blair. Bob has also reviewed Andrea Gibson's Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns for us. Read that review here.

American poetry has always been a big tent – one inclusive of the likes of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot and W.C. Williams, Amiri Baraka and Robert Hayden. Even within the limits of contemporary mainstream verse, writers continue to present an extraordinary range of visions and styles. A side-by-side reading of, for example, Sarah Browning's Whiskey in the Garden of Eden and Arthur Sze's The Ginkgo Light, offers insight into the radically different sensibilities and aesthetic approaches that inhabit that tent today.

Browning is a DC-based, emerging poet with an East Coast, urban orientation. Whiskey in the Garden of Eden is her first book. Sze is a Santa Fe-based, established, academic poet and translator with a West/Southwest and Asian/Amer-Indian orientation. The Ginkgo Light is his 9th book.

The 44 poems in Whiskey are written in unadorned, colloquial language delivered in conversational tones. The “I” speaking in most Whiskey poems is not only distinctly female, but often uniquely Sarah Browning. The poems are intimately personal and set in distinct locales. Frequently that's Washington DC or her childhood Chicago. Browning's poems are inhabited by her son Ben, sister Katie, husband Tom, father and mother, and even her bad boy eighth-grade heart-throb. The spirits of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and Harriet Tubman are still out and about in Browning's DC.

Sze's poetry is altogether different. The 23 poems in Ginkgo are literary collages of images and details that frequently find their inspiration in Amer-Indian, Chinese and Japanese culture. They offer a complex and arresting vision built from samplings across a variety of geographies and histories. The “I” speaking in Ginkgo's poems resists classification by gender, nationality, or personal history. A nondescript consciousness addresses the reader describing sights and offering observations in an almost meditative tone.

Some of these differences can be seen by comparing two poems – the first by Sze, the second by Browning – concerning the speakers' relationships with their partners.

"In the Rose Light"

no red-tailed hawk, no crows,
no geese, no raccoon tracks
by the door; when a magpie
flaps across the road,
disappears beyond the window
frame, I ponder frames –
glasses, door jamb, bee hive,
a moment of stillness – trace
an intimate geography:
son in Albany donating a cell
phone so that someone he
will never meet may call
911; clusters of wild irises
in the field; daughter glimpsed
through the doorway, arms
raised, in a ballerina pose,
then, in five minutes, asleep;
though the pink and orange
bougainvilleas are not yet
budding, I incandesce to
our firelight, to ten years
we have entwined each other.

The initial setting of the poem is evoked by the animals' absence; then a passing bird shifts the speaker's thoughts to various types of frames; but consciousness immediately shifts again – to an absent son, local wild flowers, and the sight of a young daughter before bedtime. Finally, the image of the bougainvilleas sets up the closing reflection on of the couple's ten years of “entwining."

This flow of images and associations follows the speaker's mind as it leaps from the natural world, to family, to the flowers that symbolize love and companionship. That movement is more evocative and exploratory than explanatory. The speaker could be male or female, of any ethnicity or nationality, from any social class. The lack of personal identity, by its very ambiguity, invites reader identification.

for TNH

You are away
and I barely remember you,
barely recall our love-makings
going blind in the kitchen
as you press me against the wall.

I try to feel your cock, really feel it –
can the mind alert the body
with memory, with love? – press against me.
It's been two weeks, today. It will be
six more Mondays like this
sitting in the growing sunshine
spring waking me
to myself.

I'll have to do it without you, this year:
celebrate the bulbs pushing through
the reticulated mass of fall leaves
and twigs, my weightiness.

There –
I swear I felt it.

Browning's poem plunges straight into the relationship: absence, longing, physical desire. The “entwining” in “Barely” is straight-on sex, not talismanic flowers. The situation unfolds simply and directly. The emotional focus remains fixed on the speaker's longing for the absent lover. And the final lines implicitly answer the embedded question: yes, the mind, with memory & love, can alert the body.

Many of Browning's poems are initiated by particular events, both personal and public: A family outing in Rock Creek Park (intruded on by passing helicopters), a demonstration at the second Bush inauguration, a post-party car ride home with her dad, an afternoon spent playing in the rain with her sister, and efforts assisting her son with an African-American history assignment. They are short, tightly-ordered lyrics that usually include a spare description of the key event(s), her emotional response, and reflections on the event(s) and response.

Between Whiskey and Ginkgo, the dichotomies are plentiful. Where Browning's poems tend toward emotional/psychological vignettes stressing human compassion, Sze takes a more intellectual/trans-cultural (almost cosmic) slant. Ginkgo's poems are built-up like musical compositions – with sharp, spare images instead of notes or chords – and depend on indirect associational connections. His carefully crafted clusters of images tie together in ways that seem to bind aspects of the natural world to a bewildering array of human activities and artifacts. And certain images developed in one poem (trees, flowers, glazed pottery, even mountain ranges) reappear in later poems to echo and expand the original – subtly and suggestively linking the individual poems.

Even in the more directly political poems, Whiskey and Ginkgo remain worlds apart. Here's Browning:

"In a City of Barricades, I Dream of Baghdad"
Second Inauguration

A man walks into a wedding
and detonates – lace and sweet cakes.
Who imagined love was immune?
One body alone has chosen this future.
We choose to object, cardboard coffins
in our streets. But we've nothing
to draw the cameras, or even the cops.
We make love and weep. We cannot stop.

This poem, like many of the others in Whiskey, shows the essential “lifefulness” of Browning's poems. Life enacting itself through desire and the activities that desire drives. Life's goal is more life – less unnecessary pain and death. The deaths from a suicide bombing are associated with the cardboard coffins at the anti-war demonstration, and opposed by the lovemaking, mourning and commitment expressed in the final line.

Ginkgo's title poem includes its own bomb, but Sze's treatment of it goes in an entirely different direction.

Section 5 from "The Ginkgo Light"

August 6, 1945: a temple in Hiroshima 1130 meters
from the hypocenter disintegrates, while its ginkgo

buds after the blast. When the temple is rebuilt,
they make exit, entrance steps to the left and right

around it. Sometimes one fingers annihilation
before breaking into bliss. A mother with Alzheimer's

knows her son but not where she lives or when
he visits. During the Cultural Revolution,

Xu-mo scrubbed one million dishes on a tanker
and counted them in a trance. A dew point

is where a musher jogs alongside her sled dogs,
sparing them her weight on the ice to the finish.

Unlike the temple, the ginkgo tree survives the blast. And when the temple is rebuilt, the leaf-bearing tree is preserved in place as a natural symbol of hope and recovery. Relatively straight-forward at first, including the annihilation/bliss epigram, the poem then jumps, without transition, to the Alzheimer mother, Xu-mo's labors during Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and the finish of a sled-dog race. These odd juxtapositions suggest a kind of aesthetic/ethical jigsaw puzzle – inviting scrutiny and deliberation. Or, perhaps, each poem is a like an extended Zen koan accessible to intuition but not to rational analysis.

In addition to the differences between Whiskey and Ginkgo, the books contain internal variety as well. Whiskey, for example, includes a two-page humorous poem in Q&A survey format, called “Assess Your Own Eating Habits,” that playfully mocks food/body image/weight loss anxieties. It begins:

1. Do you feel a desire to be thin?
Yesterday, chocolate eggs and schoolboy cookies and cheese
and cheese and carrot cake chips toast and butter butter and
toast. OK, today, fruit fruit fruit yogurt juice juice.

And this fun little piece:


I don't often use car metaphors
in poems
being a girl.
But when I got stuck in fifth gear
on Route 2, racing to Boston,
it was irresistible.
I need my linkages lubricated,
the shy garage man told me
and he's right.

That said, Whiskey and Ginkgo are, if not quite opposites, so divergent in orientation, technique and attitude to reception that – taken together – they well illustrate contemporary American poetry's impressive diversity. And taken together they should be! What the critic and poet Dana Gioia advised for public poetry readings – that poets should read the works of others in addition to their own – applies to the solitary reader, too. Embrace variety! Read outside your comfort zone!

Whiskey in the Garden of Eden

The Word Works
2007, $15.00

The Ginkgo Light
Copper Canyon Press
2009, $15.00
A review copy of The Ginkgo Light was provided by Copper Canyon.

Sarah Browning
, besides being a poet, is co-director of Split This Rock Poetry Festival and DC Poets Against the War, and co-editor of the anthology DC Poets Against The War (Argonne House Press, 2004). She has worked as a community organizer in Boston public housing and a political organizer for a variety of progressive and women's causes. She was founding director of Amherst Writers & Artists Institute and Assistant Director of The Fund for Women Artists. For more info on Browning click here.

Arthur Sze, an award winning poet and translator of Chinese verse, is a featured poet at the Split This Rock 2010 Poetry Festival. He is a professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he served as the city's first poet laureate from 2006 – 2008. His nine books of poetry and poetry translations are published by Copper Canyon Press. For more information on Sze click here.

Bob Blair is a former English Lit major (way former!) who, after five years with the Peace Corps in Thailand teaching and training teachers, was transformed via academic chrysalis into an economist. But, in recent years, he has returned to his caterpillar heritage by facilitating weekly poetry workshops at Miriam's Kitchen. (

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