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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Laurence Lieberman's Twelfth Book of Poems




In his refusal to be other than who he is in his poetry, Lieberman creates
a deceptively straightforward, average-guy, American-Innocent-Abroad type
of persona that again bears study and watching.  It ain't so simple,
and neither is he.  He has an artist's cunning, crafty and designing.

Like Odysseus, Laurence Lieberman is a cunning traveler.  His poems appear straightforward enough in their meandering story-telling lines and flowing stanza forms, and as modern poems go, they are easy to read.  He travels to familiar places like Japan and the Caribbean, and his verse takes the shape of a modern odyssey that involves his wife and children, usually accompanied by a trustworthy guide.  It's familiar territory: we've been there and done that.  Americans are intrepid sightseers; no matter what remote part of the world you want to visit, there's a group-tour trooping up ahead of you.
    And there's Lieberman with his Nikon and hiking boots tramping up the mountainside or riding in a hired taxi down to the shore.  He has his notebook too, and he's jotting down whatever scenery or plant or animal strikes his attention.  The persona of his poetry is a "visitor" and "outsider," two words he uses to describe himself in the final poem of his latest collection, Flight from the Mother Stone, his twelfth book of poems.  Don't look for farfetched meanings, obscure passages or obtuse imagery here: we are on familiar ground, Dominica, St. Maarten, Aruba, the islands of the Antilles and the West Indies where club Mediterranean has already put up hotels.
    Only thing is, you won't find Lieberman there.  He is off bushwhacking in the backwoods, crawling into a cave, or getting lost in the dark on some dead-end road.  He has gulped the waters and winds of so many Carib islands, his friend Franz, Bonaire's Minister of Culture, tells him, that no one may be more alive "to the best life of this region" ("Diving into the Stone").  That's about as close as the poet gets to revealing his credentials.  More often than not, he plays the part of an honest, acute observer who records what he sees and hears of that exotic tropical world, its flora, fauna and people.  In his desire to set down his experiences he has been often compared to Whitman with his open lines and all-encompassing vision, and rightly so, but in his almost total lack of ego he is the absolute opposite of old Walt.  Like Odysseus, he takes the name "Nobody."
    Lieberman is rarely the central protagonist of his poems: he's always off on the sidelines, taking it all in and getting it straight.  What he sees and hears, what happens to him is more of a concern than who he is or where his ultimate destiny lies.  The priests and nuns he meets along the way, with their sincere convictions and sure answers about eternal salvation, are treated with respect but kept at a safe distance.  In "Four Sisters" he gives a priest and two nuns a copy of his collection, God's Measurements (a neatly ironic title in the circumstances), but he does not accept their invitation to Sunday High Mass.  He knows, however, that their lives and the lives of those that follow them will be spent in Carriacou long after he is gone from the island.  In his refusal to be other than who he is in his poetry, Lieberman creates a deceptively straightforward, average-guy, American-Innocent-Abroad type of persona that again bears study and watching.  It ain't so simple, and neither is he.  He has an artist's cunning, crafty and designing.
    Let's return to the poetic form.  The stanzas repeat the same format, unique to each poem.  Some poems have two different stanza shapes that again are repeated.  Lines are indented in an unpredictable fashion, but with the same regularity for each verse.  Words race along lines that mimic the narrative or descriptive pattern and receive unusual emphasis by their placement.  It's a complex design but makes sense: free verse with its own highly constricted rules, like those of Marianne Moore but having a wholly different result ÷ instead of density we get open-ended expansion and movement.  One might only illustrate it by quoting complete poems, something reviewers can do for short pieces but not for the long ones that Lieberman writes.  This habit of length makes it hard for his work to be anthologized, especially in today's highly competitive poetry market.  Lieberman goes his own way: you go the whole route or you're not in the race with him.  It's his odyssey as it unfolds in book after book.
    In "The Tilesmith's Hill Fresco" from Eros at the World Kite Pageant: Poems 1979-1982, Lieberman writes of "A mathematics that endures / (oh, steadfast cosmos!), / and survives ÷ like inner light ÷."  Like the metaphysical poets, he is fascinated by shapes on the page, and he uses as his subjects Japanese craftsmen, Caribbean artists, buiders and storytellers to create the symmetry of his art.  Poems take the shape of double helixes, mosaics, schools of fish, kites or geese in flight to lead the reader from surface patterns to inner light.  Like the children in "The Grave Rubbings," also from Eros, he traces "story-pictures of local sights" in the stone of poetry.  Tombstone art becomes living language in imagery and sound.  In a measured conversational beat, his voice conducts us in imitation of folk music, jazz, and classical quartets to hear what he sees, to get inside his skin and feel and touch this paradise that is also Eden after the fall.
    From his first book of poems, The Unblinding (1968), with its description of "The Porcupine Puffer Fish," Lieberman has been fond of animals.  In his latest collection, he includes a Guyana bestiary of Watras (Capybara or water rats), boa constrictors, jaguars, turtles, possum, and giant eagles called Harpies.  In "Wolf of the Skies," he describes these frightening birds that pluck up monkeys and even human toddlers.  "She's dubbed / the Flying Wolf / by Amerindian tribes of Guyana's interior."  Yet even here is beauty in motion: "Cruising at high altitudes that test the limits / of human sight, she swoops, diving so fast we glimpse / a wing-folded / slender point-beaked blur."  Flora also gets its due in "Fern Heaven," "To Merge with Trees," "Cactus Love," and "The Divi-Divi Trees, Forsaken."
    People matter most in Lieberman's poetry.  In the first poem of Flight, in "A Gift for Grandad Jacob," we meet an expatriated German, Klaus, an elderly restaurant owner, with his 20-year-old native girlfriend Christobel.  Together with the local Dominican constable, they set out to visit Jacob, Christobel's grandfather, in jail, only to encounter bureaucracy and hostility: "We're viewed / as mere jail chaff ourselves, and I can feel / my citizen status falling away like yesterday's deodorant."  The dramatic tension is spiked with humor and detachment while each person is transformed by the poet's touch of compassion.  Like many of the poems, it's a love story involving all the characters and embracing the reader as we hurtle in a four-wheel-drive Pathfinder over s-curving roadways to the jail and find ourselves in its teeming courtyard: "down the backalley / sidepath, shortcut to the uphill / wheelrut-gouged / zigzagging narrow two lane to prison."  We are glad to meet Jacob finally and give him the sack of fruit we know he will never be able to eat.  Chico, the next person we encounter, in "Work Chants of the Diamond Miner," equally involves us in his squalid life as an abused miner, freed at last by malaria, beset by his love fantasies and his dream of a mermaid, and his survival as "the one loyal guardian of God's creatures / in the miner's camp."
    Other strange personages met along our route are Jolene and Eunice, elderly poachers who steal turtle eggs at great risk to themselves; Cecil and Jake, old friends who argue over eating possum; Nolly, a modern Johnny Appleseed who plants trees wherever he can; Grande Dame Viola, a Haitian voodoo priestess who bites off a chicken head and tears out a goat's heart; teen-age Tony Hodge, a surgeon's assistant who has mastered the art of administering ether; Julio Maduro, who lives and sleeps with cacti; ten-year-old Max, who pilots his father's mailboat; Ben Golden, a fellow poet and Jew on an island honeymoon with his youthful third wife; and Eiffel Francis, a 107-year-old augurer, "the oldest Carib Matriarch," who speaks only French Creole and regales the author with her tales.  Myths and legends of lost maidens unfold along our travels, like the stories of the sea-nymph Appolonia and of Alicia, a girl abducted by the Spirit of the Boiling Lake.  A shaman or seer waits as guide and talespinner to lighten and enliven the journey as stories within stories weave and interweave in the poet's odyssey.
    Above all, there is our Odysseus, Lieberman himself: from first to last he leads us to places we shall never visit and to experiences we can share with no one else.  Significantly, the climactic poem of the collection, "Diving into the Stone," does not provide the title of the book; only the first section of the sequence does: "Flight from the Mother Stone."  Escorted by his friend Franz, the author plans to climb the "mystic King Rock of the land," an isolated T-shaped, heart-like Bonaire monolith perforated with caves and crevices.  Lieberman manages to climb and scramble to the top, but he cannot let himself go: he fights off the "impulse to dive into the gorge."  Franz consoles him after he recovers back on the ground, full of anger at his own cowardice and fear: "You're not ready / to cross over ÷ pray give yourself / more time.  Take heart."  Instead, Lieberman tells the story of another traveler, Mortimer, a lawyer from British Columbia who, that very week with Franz as guide, had leaped into the abyss and returned a new man, bending down to kiss the holy ground.  He quit the lawcourt and became a High Master of the Mystic Order of the Rosicrucians.
    Of course, there's something bathetic, even comic, about the denoument.  We can hardly imagine this role to be the goal of the poet's lifelong outer and inner odyssey.  He is still in flight from the Mother Stone even as he flings himself into her arms:

                                                                        I mustn't lose heart,

            Franz comforts me.  Many others from foreign lands, like myself,
                                                                    despite failed tries
                        to squirm and slither through the magic tunnels, grooves,
                            and passageways of the birth stone, have solved
        the riddle of the maze÷and embraced, finally, their second bursting

It's a wild donkey, of all things, that must come across our path, to be tamed and accepted, like Yeats' beast slouching toward Bethlehem, before we can be born again.  If Mortimer can do it, Lieberman implies, there's hope for the rest of us mortals.  Odysseus is Nobody and Everybody.

Lieberman, Laurence. Flight from the Mother Stone.  Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of Arkansas Press, 2000.  ISBN: 1-557-728585-3  $20.00

© by James Finn Cotter


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