by Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991)
Reviewed by John Isles (Estonia 1992-94)
WHEN THE TV NEWS COMES ON I often feel overwhelmed by the barrage of reportage. It seems nearly impossible to have complete empathy with the inmate on death row, the awe and wonder of the astronaut, or the depth of grief a 9/11widow feels. D.H. Lawrences we know too much and feel too little applies today more than ever; it is exactly what makes war possible. Sandra Meeks latest book of poems, Burn, pulls together the disparate events of modern life and connects childhood and old age, technology and terrorism, and the minutest details of a life alongside the immensity of the cosmos. What is simultaneously disturbing and reassuring about the poems is that Meek identifies both the heights and depths of human existence as divine burning; the poets job, she teaches us, is to seize the fire.
The poems in Burn are often evocative of a Robert Rauschenberg collage such as Tracer where Vietnam era helicopters appear next to a classic nude, an American eagle and a 60s era car and trailer. The trick is to connect things that dont seem connected. The books title poem, for example, begins with an image of burnt skin peeling, then shifts to a magnet, an Apollo spacecraft, and finally refocuses on the initial burnt skin image to reveal first-graders peeling dried glue from their hands. It happens so fast that only the poem gives a clear sense:
Recovering, my hand peels
translucent flags, tags of rice paper, wherever the magnet
pulls the compass is
true north, a particular
unraveling: 1969, the television flickering its aquarium astronaut
cradled in static as we first graders poured glue
into our hands, opaque pools slowly abandoning
layers of the visible for leavings
of rubbery crystal, milk drained away . . .
The unraveling of the glue and the unraveling of the disparate events in the poem are particular and true north. In other words, there is direction and random events are mysteriously connected. The peeled glue becomes a flag, an allusion to the conquest of the moon with the American flag, and morphs into rice paper and the possibility for writing. The transformation is the work of the imagination pulled by the necessity of living and burning. By the poems end Meek compares the dried glue to cosmic dust and senses her whole life in the lifelines. Uncannily Burn reminds us that Genesis was broadcast from one Apollo and conflates the transgression of the garden with the first-graders rewriting the imagined events along lifelines: [We revised] the cratered lake/to skateable surface, perfect with speed/ of not /looking down, untouched/ galaxy -swirls of fingerprints one more/ sacred transgression. Its as if to say, we are all burning, sloughing off skin as we age, writing our own Genesis as we go, one skin and one page at a time.
Ground zero becomes a central motif in the book that has the weight of Emily Dickinsons zero at the bone, death and the unknown. Few writers have been brave enough to address 9/11 in a poem, for obvious reasons, yet Meek situates some of the most devastating events in recent history in the context of burning and holiness. Stay (1/1/00) fuses fireworks , topiary, and doves in an apocalyptic poem that largely concerns itself with the stay of execution for a death row inmate:
For doves let off among fireworks
shot over Holy City midnight, freedom
ended as disaster: What tames wild greenery to topiary
unclipped their wings, sent them
crashing together. It must have seemed apocalypse, sky
ripped in two
The energy of the stanza comes with the morphing from line to line of freedom which ends and sky which is ripped; each is momentarily a banner of hope, each is subverted in the enjambed lines. Holy City midnight is both a place and a time. It is the witching hour where one hopes for fairy tale interventions of terrorists and of the death sentence; however, The masked guest never arrives. End of the world, end for the inmate and for the doves; it is all burning, our sure progress toward death. On the Modification of Clouds examines 9/11 even more directly:
Two columns of air
still the citys tallest structure, weeks later, smoke
still rising, penciled, as it were, onto the sky
It was said that after Auschwitz poetry would not be possible, and I think many Americans feel this way about 9/11. Any attempt to capture that event seems likely to fail, but there is a clear restraint in the Sandra Meeks work and an earnest attempt to ask the questions that all of us need to ask: why? what is it all for? Additionally, the fact that Meek describes the towers as clouds (the negative that stands in their absence) locates disaster in larger a context where human nature collides with the natural world, where . . . cirrus, cumulus, stratus, nimbus: where/ is it written, the taxonomy/ for Paradise, language made universal by its dying. Theres no blame and no patriotism. Us and them becomes earth and sky in the end. There are no easy answers, only your own broken face, aqueous/ atmosphere, air weighted by the absence/ of wings.
While reading A Short History of Flight, my first instinct was too skip to find sections actually written by the poet herself. This reaction is largely due to the collage format of the poem which splices in texts from Orville Wright, John Glenn, and several other commentators. I realized after a couple of readings that Meek converses with the texts and inserts her own slant of light into each:
To go on a cosmic journey, one must leave the planet earth far behind . . . .
The only change to the delicate blue-and white pattern is an occasional small yellow orange shape, a desert . . . but which one, the Sahara in Africa, the Gobi in Asia, or the great sandy desert in Australia?
Alan Bean, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account
In one desert a woman anchored string to her ankle
and walked foundations into sand. So the bodys circling
There is much like this: ambitious interactions with found texts that force one to think about sources as farflung as A Book of the Campfire Girls and A Citizens Handbook. The poem equates humankinds desire to fly with its Promethean desire for fire, and with all its ambition it is a demanding poem, yet one that is clearly worth a great deal of effort.
Burn lands squarely on its feet with the closing poem, Aftermath, which it seems we are all living in now. It begins, In the beginning, blue light to remind us of the cyclical nature of stories. Genesis becomes the story of a person dying of cancer, a personal ground zero. Some of Meeks most emotive lines comes with the unleashing of the I which previously had been used sparingly: I dont want to join her/ in the uprooted garden, unnaming the animals and later I held your remembered/ breath in my hair, my/ unreeling name // postponing arrival, all the way down. The public narrative of 9/11 and the apocalyptic fears of the New Millennium are incorporated with a private narrative of death and separation. Sandra Meek has shorn up her fragments against her ruins in Burn and so can all who pick up this book and read.
John Isles is the author of Ark, a collection of poems out from the University of Iowa Press (2003). His poems have appeared in many journals and are forthcoming in Boston Review, Colorado Review, and Electronic Poetry Review. He was recently awarded a 2005 NEA fellowship and the Ruskin Art Club Prize from The Los Angeles Review.