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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Jill Peláez Baumgaertner's Poetry





Baumgaertner's  poetry, unlike so much of what is prized these days, is important.
It is so because it's bald and artful.  It gives us truths which are undeniable.
It gives us the longing, the restlessness we all experience, yes, but the poems
are limned in resurrection humor as well.  And because they attempt,
time and time again, to reach for what she knows they can't finally, fully
attain and so give, they become emblems for the hope we all carry too.

George Herbert's poem, "The Pulley," is an oft-anthologized little number wherein God discusses (with whom we do not know) how He plans to gift humans with "the world's riches, which dispersed lie / Contract into a span."  And so He does.  But since He is God, He knows, too, that with the coming fall, His gifts won't be enough.  So Herbert, an Anglican clergyman, has him complete the poem with the following stanza:

        Yet let him keep the rest,
        But keep them with repining restlessness:
        Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
        If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
        May toss him to my breast.

In large part the above quote might serve as a kind of thematic statement for Jill Peláez Baumgaertner's Finding Cuba.  Everything in our lives bears the mark of our longing for spiritual wholeness, but we do not find completion in this world, neither in dreams, nor in memory, photographs, stories of any ethnic exodus, relationships, sex, poetry, or nature.  It's simply not to be got.  But in the working out of the divine economy as registered in Herbert's poem, we do find that each failed attempt is turned to the good as we  are led back to the One who IS wholeness.  And though that necessary restlessness can be resolved finally when, like Dante, we experience the beatific vision in heaven, Baumgaertner's poetry serves the important function of showing us how we live as we wait and struggle toward that end.
    I suppose it's always been true that to get the news from American poetry, one has to go to the smaller presses.  Think of heroic Bill Williams banging those keys in his attic after four heart attacks, one side of his body too paralyzed to be of much help.  Think of Blake and Whitman, Dickinson, Joyce.  The larger corporate presses have always sacrificed vision for fine polish and a herd mentality ÷ and we shouldn't expect much more from them because they have to make a buck.  But small presses can afford to be more Quixotic because nobody there really expects to vacation on their earnings.  And so these smaller presses can push the envelope.  In the best cases, such pushing results in news.  And we DO get that here.  It's "Good News," yes, but because Baumgaertner is such a seasoned poet, she moves us beyond what many might expect from religious verse.  There are no easy answers here, no either/or's because the poet has gone where most of the Christian poems are, to Paul's "fear and trembling," that is, to the place where we all haltingly work out our salvations.  We are able to see life, not as we would like it to be, but as we truly, on most days, live it.
    Baumgaertner's  poetry, unlike so much of what is prized these days, is important.  It is so because it's bald and artful.  It gives us truths which are undeniable.  It gives us the longing, the restlessness we all experience, yes, but the poems are limned in resurrection humor as well.  And because they attempt, time and time again, to reach for what she knows they can't finally, fully attain and so give, they become emblems for the hope we all carry too.  Something in us keeps us going forward, through time, trying to become who we know we are meant to be.  We can never complete ourselves, but the life that is in us keeps us pressing after final answers.
    Baumgaertner uses the first third of her book to examine her own personal need to find the missing part of her past: Cuba.  An immigrant herself, she feels displaced, incomplete, and so seeks to remedy the situation.  But if that were all she were up to, the poetry would not be especially new in the "news" department.  Minorities of an increasingly doubtful stripe have been doing this pretty often lately (some without the help of Bill Moyers), and the results are usually self-absorbed, hackneyed verse.  But Baumgaertner takes the search motif much farther here, and uses the nationality issue to make a larger statement about the human condition.  And though we get beautiful glimpses of Cuba, that largely lost culture, none of them are enough to give her what she needs: wholeness.  And this is all of us, whatever our search or current distraction.  We all seek it in some way, but it simply is not forthcoming on the physical plane.
    This might put some readers off, especially if they are Christian, but it shouldn't.  Yes, God is absolute and does not change, but we are not Him.  Even the great mystics, after all, spent most of their time in the mundane, in doing laundry or weaving baskets.  They filled up their time by doing what they did in God's sight; and if we, like them, do it well enough, perhaps we too can contribute to the furthering of the kingdom.  What's so nice about poetry is that it refuses either of the easy outs: it will not go for the "keep the high" Christianity of t.v. evangelists, nor does it reduce itself to wandering through the trackless waste with a God who never ever reveals Himself.  Baumgaertner seeks Him in the moment; she sees what matters there, and hopes on, walking her walk.  This is real Christian poetry.  It never "faiths it," eyes closed to the present as it holds to past revelations.  No.  She walks in the present, meditates on what's there.
    The first poem in the section is titled "Uprooted," and in it the first thing one notices is the layering on of prepositional phrases.  This is important, as we shall see with Adam and Eve when they come up, because women here usually comprehend the world by means of relationships: thus the prepositional.  They are acute and see quickly while the male is more dazed, dazzled by beauty, visuals.  He is more ruled by perception.  But as we shall see as well in the later sections, the male and the female are interchangeable because they are both human.  Each can see something of things from the other's perspective.  But here, right at the start, the groundwork is laid:

        The artists painting Cuba from memory
        or from photographs, from family stories
        of the exodus, from dreams, know
        their bloodlines are not clear.  The work
        is mongrel, neither Cuban nor American.

Artists, as we shall see as we go through the book, are intent on delivering relationships, beauty.  Their work is hope in the form of artifact, because we need the reminders.  But the work too is a measure of the incompleteness in each one of us.  No artist can be purely Cuban, or purely anything else.  Christ, as Augustine says, and only Christ, fills the hole we feel.  But no one I know walks around feeling the splendor of His presence each moment.  More often, we are like the artists, the poems, the dreamers, the memories, the photographs.  We feel His absence at least as much as we feel His presence.  And because of our response to our situation, our faith grows.  But, I hasten to add, that joyful sense of presence cannot be kept altogether out, either.  It's part of the package.  Consider the source of the amazement the speaker shares as she delivers the following strikingly earthy Cuban imagery:

        Parrots settle in the sour orange, fifty
        at a time.  They are netted and eaten
        like pigeons, cooked with onion, garlic, bay

        leaves, lemons.  She remembers her father
        discarding the diminutive bones of squab
        on newspapers spread flat in the middle
        of the kitchen table.

            *    *    *    *

                            . . . the greatest curiosity÷
        children of ten or twelve dressed in stovepipe hats
        and swallow-tail coats, in long dresses
        with low necks, saunter arm in arm
        through the broad paths.  Most children
        of the island, one parent tells her delicately,
        know relations of the sexes.

                            ["Cuba, 1905: What She Found and Why She Stayed"]

In this section the poet is trying to fill in some family blanks, and the attempts are evocative, beautiful.  But she knows it cannot be done.  All the characters, however, do not or cannot share her insights.  They can't seem to incorporate that fact in a seamless view of the human condition.  And so they suffer, more than, perhaps, they need to.  There's her grandma who becomes a Ziegfeld girl, who left her family, children, to get away from the machismo confines of the island; there's her father, the silent military man who never speaks in the poems; and there are all of the people of the Cuban diaspora, who have to try and find a life that works in a strange country.  And finally there is the poet, too, who ends the last poem of the section, "Peláez Relinked," with the following:

        It is this familar set of syllables:
                    as sheer as lawn,
                I raise it, fragile page,
                    like a white flag.

Everyone in the section has sought and lost, and so what could be next?  Well for Baumgaertner, a Christian, the move is not hard to guess.  One must reach for a wider context to make sense of things; in this book, that's Christianity.  And so we get the second section of the book, entitled "Leaving Eden."  The title gives the poet away here, but nothing is lost.  A religious/spiritual grounding can help us make sense of our pain, but it will not relieve the whole of it.  It will not provide a consistent distracting spiritual buzz.  We are fallen creatures.  We cannot go back, or forward if you want to talk the beatific vision.  And it's from these realizations that the poems proceed.
    What our poet does here is to see our lives through the lens of the Real, capital R.  This makes sense of our loss.  But as in the first poem of this section, "Genesis," she does more than just that.  This poem beautifully displays the great joy and intimacy available within the parameters of who we, fallen, are.  In the poem Adam is created and then names what he sees.  The language is worth the price of admission here:

        And Adam rises from the mud,
        whole, moving his feet slowly
        through the clay, as it sucks and

        pulls him back, not yet ready to
        give him up.  His legs move
        like shears cutting leather . . ..

"Sucks" and "shears" are great choices.  And through them Baumgaertner allows us to participate in the joy she finds in creating, naming.  This quality is emphasized when she has Adam name things.  He names many creatures, including "lynx, otter, / mistle thrush, marmoset."  Wonderful choices, and she just keeps going: "Fairy / shrimp, lark, tamarin, sturgeon," and later "skunk, / pigeon, ibex, wallaby."  There is a great, almost infantile joy in saying and in feeling one's mouth muscles bend as we repeat these wonderfully odd words.  Freudians would call this an oral fixation, no doubt, but I would choose to see it in a more positive light.  It's a gift, a kind of holy laughter.  And there is much "resurrection" humor of a different kind in the poem as well ÷ a gift she might have borrowed from one of her mentors, Flannery O'Connor.  It's the humor readers share as the characters interact.  A good example of this is when Eve responds to Adam by coming up with verbs which could be nouns as well; she takes things one level higher.  Her words include "punt / hedge, fleece, speckle," and then later, "dice, pepper, twine."  It's a lovely one-upsmanship in that they're feeling each other out.  Adam responds by getting latinate: "rationale, antecedent, cogitation."  It's a humor that spells resurrection because it embodies such a large yes to life.  And the humor is picked up in another way too.  Adam, earlier in the poem, was so slow in coming to ask questions about origins, but not Eve:

        Eve knows she has been there always,
        kindling his mind, teasing the hairs

        on his arm.

    Whatever the metaphorical implication of her knowledge, it is wrong in the literal sense.  She was just created.  Here Baumgaertner seems to have a little fun at her own sex's expense.  Eve is precise, present, but on a very literal level, she is wrong.  I found that delightful.  And this joyful expression comes to a climax (almost) in the final image.  After showing us how man sees through a lens of beauty and woman through one of relationships, our poet ends the poem:

                                His fingers
        seek hers.  She raises his palm and with
        her finger spells her love inside it.

        He moves close for her interpretation.

    This is rewarding stuff.  The intimacy, the inversion with the phallic image.  It's all very tender and affirming.  Of course, the fall happens, and the results are still with us today.  And Baumgaertner does a nice job getting that across by juxtaposing the Adam and Eve characters with present day situations.  They both try to relocate that joy and wholeness and sense of discovery, but they either cannot find it at all or they cannot maintain it.  And so they suffer.  "Aubade" ends with the woman speaker absently recording, "She will become as tangible / as peaches crushed in ice."  It's a deeply impersonal, disturbing image.  She sees herself, after the man has gone, as less than human.  We become things for each other, and despite the interruption by "Spiritus Sanctus," the problems continue.  The husband in one poem, in fact, ends up looking by the wife when he sees her, because he doesn't want to.  This is not lost on the woman.  We are not enough for each other, whatever the good times.  She, the Eve of the poems, longs for life, like a cicada, seventeen years underground.  But when does it come?
    Psychiatrists, especially psychiatrists, can't help when it comes to what's bothering her, portable altars set up in airports can't seem to help either.  But she does finally find a kind of resolution.  In the last poem of the section entitled "Ave and Benedicta," the airport liturgical image is redeemed and the call she's felt previously to become a receptive Holy Mary-like person is reintroduced in a stronger fashion.  The poem ends with the persona looking at a triptych:

        She is rapt with love, she says yes to all creation,
        knowing the image does not come
        without the word.

        She bears the word.

If Christian poets do not bear the word, how can they claim the Word has power in their lives?  This is the thematic center of the book.  The poet reaffirms the place of art and witness, and she reaffirms that central witness of Him whose sandals we are not fit to unloose.
    This done, now Baumgaertner can get "Under the Skin"; that is, she can look at her life perhaps more clearly now.  She's done what she could with identity, both in a cultural/geographical and a religious sense.  Things have remained difficult, but that is no surprise to her, nor to us.  This IS a human condition after all.  She is generous with men for the most part in this section.  They are as wounded as the women.  And she keeps her resurrection humor alive while driving her messages home.  In some poems she can't tell if she's the person listening, if she's in her body or out of it.  And this is good because it helps her to maintain her full humanity in the poems.  As The Firesign Theatre once put it: "We're all bozos on this bus."  Male or female, it doesn't matter.
    The final section, "Under the Skin," begins with "What I Knew, Age 3."  It's a fine poem, reminds me of a line I sometimes use with my students: "Poetry's the only occupation where you can't know much, but get to make a big deal out of it."  And so it is here.  The girl is precocious, but she gets it all wrong: "I could / remember the darkness / that was before I was . . .."  It goes on: "I also knew . . . that if I stared hard enough without blinking / while mother cooked dinner my father / would appear at the corner and walk / up the steps."  The humor here is that she's partly right in that we order a good deal of our worlds through memory, perception, poetry, but she's wrong when it comes to her cause and effect conclusions.  (O'Connor would be delighted.)  The poet in this section remembers: the second grade, her sister's delegging of a spider; but none of the past is of much help and none of it reflects the significance of the time being considered ÷ only God is objective enough for that.  Nothing on earth brings a sustained wholeness, completion, satisfaction.  Nothing this side of the beatific vision will.
    But the poet's growth as a woman is also marvelously examined in this last section as well, and in some detail.  There is much pathos as we see the young girl learn something of what it means to be female from an older woman named Florence.  It's just one of the many nice touches in this book, beautiful poems which examine both her lot as a woman in general and her individual responses to gender issues.  These are valuable poems, in part because Jill Peláez Baumgaertner does not lose her Christian perspective while speaking with a feminist voice.  She's very fair in that she makes distinctions between difficulties which are existential and ones which are the result of male injustice.  She doesn't give us propaganda here, just good poetry.
    The problems with males are real, palpable, and should not be avoided.  (That certainly wouldn't help pre-born women in China or dowry-less women in India.  Nor would it help the women each of us work and live with.)  The guilty parties here are male artists (though I suppose all unjust men could qualify as artists since all people construct something of what they call reality).  Degas, King David, and Pygmalion all abuse women in the three powerful poems which close the book.  These are first-rate poems, and Baumgaertner should be applauded for having the courage to end the book with them.  I say this because too often Christians can act like there are no real problems once they have found their way into the fold, no endemic ones, no institutionalized one.  But the poet here ends as fiercely as she has begun, refusing to fall into stereotypes, either those perpetrated by non-Christians or those spread by Christians ÷ who sometimes confuse public relations and truth.  (Jesus doesn't need the former.)  Yes, Jill Peláez Baumgaertner has given us the news here.  Dig in.  Turn the page.  You'll enjoy the experience.

Baumgaertner, Jill Peláez. Finding Cuba.  Valparaiso, Indiana: Chimney Hill Press, 2001.  ISBN: 0-962-73003-3   $12.95

© by David Craig


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