Monday, January 26, 2009

Book Stall Review: Winter Sky

Winter Sky
New and Selected Poems, 1968-2008
by Coleman Barks
University of Georgia Press, 2008

Four decades of poet Coleman Barks' work are included in this retrospective, drawn from seven previously published books and accented by a half dozen new poems. They are presented in reverse chronological order and grouped according to the books in which they appeared: Scrapwood Man (2007), Tentmaking (2002), Club: Granddaughter Poems (2001), Gourd Seed (1993), We're Laughing at the Damage (1977), New Words (1976), The Juice (1972).

This is the first extensive collection of poetry by Barks, who is better known as a translator of Rumi and other mystic poets of Persia. It includes "Just This Once," his best-known poem, published and widely circulated online in the days before the invasion of Iraq. Structured as an open letter to President Bush, it makes a poetic plea for peace and offers a poignant alternative to war:

President Bush, before you order air strikes,
imagine the first cruise
missile as a direct hit on your closest friend.

That might be Laura. Then twenty-five other
family and friends.
There are no survivors. Now imagine some

other way to do it. Quadruple the inspectors.
Put a thousand and one
U.N. people in. Then call for peace activists

to volunteer to go to Iraq for two weeks each.
Flood that country with
well-meaning tourists, people curious about

the land that produced the great saints, Gilani,
Hallaj, and Rabia.

While the themes of Barks' poetry do not arise from the natural world as much as they do in Mary Oliver's work, they are nevertheless deeply rooted in the cultures and environments of the rural Deep South. In "The Great Blue Heron" he reflects on his first crane sighting, at the age of 7, before it was shot from its flight by a tack room attendant:

... but here's the biggest bird
I've ever seen, hug, bluish-grey
stretching between hemlock and laurel,
moving slow against the creekwind,
legs and body hanging almost straight down

And in the summer of 1945, when two atom bombs were dropped from the sky, he and a friend have a close encounter with a screech owl trapped in a stairwell that connects them to the universal:

These birds are pictures of our being alone,
at large: light flight,
then back to a fearful perch

We are such fluttering monsters
moving within several shapes, till some appearance

While this collection covers a wide range of issues and experiences, the through line is the story of a man like Benjamin Button, aging in reverse and progressing verse by verse toward an understanding of his place in the universe.

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