V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Bouvard’s poems are carefully crafted, rich
with imagery, and ringing with sound devices.

Marguerite Bouvard, a multidisciplinary writer who has published sixteen books, including non-fiction works in political science, psychology, spirituality, grief, illness, human rights, also writes fine contemporary poetry.  Her sixth and newest full-length collection, The Unpredictability of Light, touches on all her non-fiction subjects, especially the political.  Let me confess right now that “I, too, dislike it, political poetry, that is,” to deliberately misquote Miss Moore.  Usually, I find it didactic and shrill, smacking of over-earnestness and propaganda.  But what makes Bouvard’s work worth reading and re-reading is that she uses her lyric gifts to make the political into poetry, not diatribe.  She also uses these gifts to address issues of ecology and the planet, her place in her human family and in the family of man, the crucible of illness, and our temporal place in history, both personal and public.  In doing so, she creates new fusions:  the political-lyric, the eco-lyric, the social-lyric, and the spiritual-lyric, and she does it in a way that’s both original and memorable.
    For one thing, “politics” seems to be too restrictive a word to describe what she’s doing, as she’s casting a much wider net.  Mother Teresa said, “The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small.” Bouvard’s circle is large indeed; it encompasses her own family, with its European roots, and includes history’s ugly lessons, from pre-Castro Cuba to World War II; the post-911 present, with its unsolvable problems of immigration, homelessness, the morality of torture, the Iraq war and its aftermath, the dilemmas of Gaza and the Sudan, the bombings in London; and the future, represented by her granddaughters. None of these, with the exception of the last category, are the usual subjects of the lyric gaze, but that’s the strength of this book.
    “The New Barbarians,” for example, discusses how our politicians lie with language:

                                   . . . Men
        in well-pressed suits and carrying briefcases
        slipped from their high-rise offices
        and entered the wide open gates
        of our city. . . . They spoke to us
        about new dangers.  They told us all
        would be well now and we believed them.
        They spoke a language
        we thought we understood, assuring us
        we would be safe now
        from the barbarians far across the world.

This use of language to spread fear and flame the fires against “the other” speaks especially to our Orange Alert era.  And yet even in “a heightened alert,” where it seems “the enemy is everywhere,”
. . .a moment can redeem us: 

        . . . a pair of monarch butterflies
        swooping and weaving in tremulous
        foreplay, then soaring above the trees,
        reminding us that we too are citizens
        of the sky, the wind, the light.
            [“My Country”]

What is striking about this passage is how it acts as an antidote to political cant, grounded as it is in the material and natural world. 

In “One Body,” we see that

        Dawn embraces even those
        who claim to stand apart:
        commanders ramming their bulldozers
        into olive groves and peaceful houses
        because they were near the border

and it embraces even the ones “dragging naked prisoners / along the dank corridors of their laughter.”  Without an ounce of preachiness, Bouvard takes the tender coming of the day, the black deeds at Guantanamo, and lets them reverberate in the reader’s mind,  reminding us, “We are not separate; we are interdependent.” (“The Buddha”)
    This strategy is one Bouvard employs with great effectiveness throughout the book, juxtaposition, or point/counterpoint.  First she gives you the setup:

        . . . [a]small mountain town with lyric fountains
        and green squares, a main street
        spangled with parfumeries, patisseries, artisanales

Then she gives you the contrast:

        . . . But everything is changing.  On the back streets
        Kabobs is splayed on the windows of the cafés,
        and women in chadors hang out their laundry
        on cluttered terraces.  There is a Carrefour,
        the French Wal-Mart, a city in itself.

And then, the indictment:

        And although the mountains spread their wings,
        there’s no room for Orhan, Fazil, Nazim, or Saleh. . . .
        teenagers caught between two worlds,
        wanting to be visible, wanting to have their say.

She doesn’t belabor the comparisons or hit us over the head with these situations; instead, she invites the reader to draw her own conclusions.
    Part of these conclusions leads us to think about who is our brother.  For even in paradise (“Maui”), when Bouvard shows us “the sky’s drunken beauty,” the beach “alive with the smell / of wood fire and grilled fish,” the world’s misery intrudes:  “a man with tangled hair” and “tattered shorts,” “the pages of his life / written in a language only he can read.” This hopelessness “lays its palm / on my heart like a burning coal.”
    Using the language that we can read, Bouvard’s poems are carefully crafted, rich with imagery, and ringing with sound devices: “yellow silky petals seem like the only / angel wings among us.” (“In Praise of Flowers”)  Those l’s melt the line, turn it from solid to liquid.  Or in another section, where the “uh” sounds pound like horse’s hooves:  “the ocean at dusk,” “the shush / of rustling silk.”  “No thunder / of breakers against the rocks, / no trucks rumbled by with music thudding from open windows.” (“Reprieve”)
    Through this kind of close observation, with a deep knowledge of how the political is personal (quote often attributed to Robin Morgan), Bouvard turns her attention to the planet, the plane on which we exist.  Here, the bees

        . . . do not know the text
        conquer and subdue,.
        only the web and litany
        of the Creation; stamen, pistil
        hive, haven. . . .
                   . . .They whir intently
        in their miniature engines,
        circling above me.  They mean
        no harm.  They do not poison the air.

Bouvard knows “the delicacy of where to stop short.” (Frost), with a language free of cant and rant; her goal is always poetry, not polemic.
    This deep sense of the ecology cannot help but overlap into the realm of the spiritual.  “Who is to say that only humans / can love?  All night I heard the cow / bawling for her calf.”  Bouvard sees the hand of the creator in all beings:

            . . . They [the cows] are devout:  they read
        the book of the earth daily, tamping down ridges
        . . .to make a path
                        . . . They shudder off flies,
        bearing the brunt of endurance under heavy rains.
        They do not have to learn patience.
        They are not lesser in God’s eyes.

And this spirituality owes no allegiance to orthodoxy or sect:

            . . .when I’m in the museum caught
        in the light of Turkish miniatures, my heart turns over
        before a panel of vibrant black characters, ‘God,’ they
        flash even before I read the translation.  And when
        the morning dove’s whoo whoo sounds its tocsin beneath
        my breastbone, it’s God’s voice in the body’s nave, his
        wings stirring the breath that speaks all languages.

She is the bird, God is the bird, we are the bird.  In a world that constantly tries to identify and segregate us, Bouvard is looking instead for wholeness, for unity, for the ways we are alike.
    The book is structured in three parts, “The World that Flames Around Us,” which contains poems of the past, her mother and grandmother, the family home in Europe, World War II, merging into the present, with poems about the Congo, Cambodia, Iraq, the Sudan; the second section, “The Hymn Beginning and Ending with Our Naked Flesh,” deals more exclusively with the present, the “bone-chilling rain” of the speaker’s illness (“March Rain”), loss, particularly of aging relatives, and introduces the future, the granddaughter who “carries / so many countries in her veins // [that she] also bears unclaimed geographies,” (“Isabella”); and then the third section, “View from the Future,” which pulls us into thinking about the world our children will inherit.
    Grace Paley reminds us, “There is no freedom unless earth and air and water continue and children also continue” (“Responsibility”), and this is Bouvard’s theme as well.  She imagines her other granddaughter going forth, wearing a “singlet of eggs, my banners / of prayer” (“Ariel”) and that “all the grandmothers are keeping watch, / their words hovering like wings.”  Within this chain of DNA and shared sensibilities, Bouvard imagines the continuum of life on this planet. 
    The two concluding poems provide a powerful ending to the collection.  As Bouvard writes in the penultimate poem (“As Dusk Fell”), “the pages of her book / burned with all she held / within her heart.”  She gives us the scope of history, both personal and public:

                    . . . children sweeping
        through the chapters like comets,
        the faces of her forbears surfacing like
        cows in  newly plowed furrows
        in Acquilea.

Then she concludes,

        . . . Turning the pages she saw
    corridors of rain, how even though
    her book was slender it held such mysteries.

In the final poem, “The Important Thing,” Bouvard sets down a list of instructions for the artist in our time, one who is finely tuned to the suffering on the planet caused by war, poverty, and the degradation of the ecology:  Let “your hunger / turn into fields of gleaming fruit trees.”  Let “your frail and aging body / harbor a spirit that dwarfs mountains.”  Become like the woman

                    . . . in a Hungarian
        prison whose birthday gift
        to a cell mate was a rose made
        of toilet paper. . . .
                    . . . Give randomly
        and out of poverty, not knowing
        whether the heart’s pale shoots
        will create leaves or perish.

I hear echoes of Auden’s “we must love one another, or die,” here, and also Martin Luther King Jr., “I still believe that standing up for the unarmed truth is the greatest thing in the world.”  Bouvard believes this as well, and she also believes in the power of art to transform, to heal the earth, and make it whole again. 

The Unpredictability of Light, Marguerite Bouvard. WordTech Communications (Word Press), 2009. ISBN: 9781934999400 $19.00


© by Barbara Crooker


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