Monday, June 16, 2014

On Henning: A Review of "A Swift Passage" by Peter Anastas

A Swift Passage, by Barbara Henning, Niantic, CT: Quale Press, 2013, $16

            “There is simply ourselves,” Charles Olson insisted in his 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference lecture, “and where we are has a particularity which we’d better use because that’s about all we got… the literal essence and exactitude of your own.  I mean the streets you live on, or the clothes you wear, or the color of your own hair.” (Causal Mythology, Four Seasons Foundation, 1969)

            Barbara Henning cites Olson as one of her inspirations.   Therefore it’s understandable that A Swift Passage, her important new collection of poems and stories, would appear to enact the psychogeography proposed by Olson in his Berkeley lecture:

“Peddling along, I look down at my blue socks, one higher than the other.  No city money for street repair this year, but instead an incredible pattern of intersecting cracks and potholes.” (“Third Street Tucson”)

            “All I need is one little room and a mat to sleep on.  A good blanket. Water, we need some water.  And a little burner, a cup and a plate.  And some vegetables and fruits.  That’s all, Barbara.  That’s all.”  (“Little Green Rooms”)

            “And here I am this morning on my knees in Jean’s flower garden in St. Clair Shores. Michigan, scraping old paint off a cement swordfish and then painting it white up to the snout where no water shoots out any more.”  (“Lake St. Claire”)

            “An old woman crosses Eleventh Street, pushing a walker on wheels. Shrunken with her frame bent forward, wearing little heels and a tweedy old coat—she stops for a moment and lifts up her foot to kick some stone or dirt off the wheel.”  (“Second Avenue”)

            “Bike over to Chinatown to buy a wedding gift.  Downhill Avenue A to Third Street, uphill to Broadway and then downtown downhill, the clouds hiding the sun, sometimes for many days.”  (“Single on a Stem”)

            “In a café on First Avenue, Julie Patton and I eat gazpacho and then we ramble through the park, standing in the dark under an ancient elm tree.” (“Humidity”)

            “On highway 23, heading north toward the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  It’s raining beautiful rain, pine trees, deciduous, now pine, now foggy, and the little trailers and trucks leave a trail behind them of smoke and water, the wipers going back and forth, pretty continual the rain today, but a lightness in the northern sky.”  (“Off Highway 23”)

            “Allen’s ashes are buried somewhere on the back slope of Nelson Creek, a tributary from the Chocolay River.  After a couple of big storms with trees collapsing, the creek now has two branches divide   disconnect   bifurcate.”  (“Nelson Creek”)

            “After you pass Orchard Restaurant, turn right on Sandling.  Straight up you’ll see a clearing and an old brown broken-down barn.” (“Turn Right”)

            I quote from poems and short stories, which Henning says comprise “a blend of fiction and autobiography,” some originating as “vignettes” from her journals, excerpted and woven together in a process she calls “sequential quilting.”   Her inspired collection also includes two full length stories, “Hegira,” and “The Dinner,” which expand on themes explored in the poems and shorter prose, while maintaining the same autobiographical tensions that underpin her incandescent road novel, Thirty Miles to Rosebud (BlazeVOX, 2009).. The specificity of the places described, the encounters and insights experienced in them, the sense both of motion through the country, from the Lower East Side of New York to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from Tucson, Arizona to Mexico City (“Sometimes it seems as if you are caught in the drift—And yet everything  every  act  is  impregnated  with  possibility  fragility  runaround   sidestepping”), and meditative stasis (“It makes me want to crawl inside my tent and just lie still and listen to the rain”), combine to give the book its verbal and contextual richness.

            In her concluding “Notes on This Collection” Henning speaks of traveling “through love and space,” and this is perhaps the clearest and most accurate articulation of her purpose in having composed and collected these shimmering pieces.  The love is not only of places intensely inhabited or thoughtfully traversed, it is of people—former partners and lovers, her children, friends kept and lost— longingly remembered and vividly described, yet without sentimentality.  Rather, the emotion is a function of the specificity.  Places for Henning are not merely names on roadmaps but histories which enfold us in them:  “The water on earth and in our animal human bodies plants lands air is the same water  that was here when the dinosaurs were lumbering  water  sound  earth  ether  moving  reassembling  to destroy  re story  call forth  again  om nama shivaya…”

            At bottom, what Henning suggests is an ecology: “Water flows from the Colorado River to the Gulf of California and Tucson gardens overflow  downpour  perennial springs  irrigation  tree-lined  rivulet  monsoon  riverbed  barren  run dry  Stein says that the work of man is not in harmony with the landscape, it opposes it and it is just that that is the basis of cubism.”  And this stunning book, in its form and content, is itself a reflection and a demonstration of that cubism, while also reminding us of Olson’s further insistence in his Berkeley lecture that the earth remains “the geography of our being.”

(This review appeared in House Organ, Number 87, Summer 2014)

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