Erica Goss is a talented poet, whose Wild Place poetry collection I loved (my review) and who is the current Poet Laureate for Los Gatos 2013-14, has offered up her talents today as a reviewer, while I’m attending a wonderful writer’s conference in Boston.
Today, she’ll be reviewing Every Seed of the Pomegranate by David Sullivan (Tebot Bach, San Diego, CA, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-893670-86-0, 118 pages). Without further ado, please give her a warm welcome:
On September 11, 2001, I woke to the news that New York City had been attacked. From almost three thousand miles away in California, the events I watched on TV, in spite of their horror, didn’t seem real to me. They were happening in some faraway place.
That evening, I discovered that Mark Bingham was on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Mark was the son of my neighbor, Alice Hoagland. The attack was no longer “over there.” It had arrived in my back yard.
David Sullivan’s latest collection of poems, Every Seed of the Pomegranate, brings the war in Iraq up close and personal in the same way. I had to close my eyes often, after reading lines such as “Pleasure and sorrow / are bound together – wheat sheaves / awaiting threshing” (Night Visions 1) or “No tears mark these days. / After Saddam’s soldiers left / she burned the bedsheets” (Kurdish House on Fire).
One of this collection’s many strengths is how the poems use the smallest details to authenticate frequent shifts in point of view. From the poem “Swirling Sand,” the voice of a soldier:This sand infiltrates every goddamn thing I wear. Send lotion, pronto.
And the voice of a grieving father:Allah knows my heart, my son. I do not want to hear your voice on earth, only in heaven, perched by Allah’s ear, singing inside a green bird.
War is a strange blend of the unthinkable and the practical. They both inform “Swirling Sand,” from graves that “look like / hastily plowed fields” toOutgoing letters catch helicopter downwash, bust the ropes that hold them and cascade out over the ocean. Flurry of never-heard birds.
The poem ends with this chilling image: “The eyeless sockets / fill with swirling sand,” describing the “black ash that was once a man.” From the irritation of sand on skin to the ghostly after-image of a dead man, these images crash into the reader’s mind with a precise, yet jumbled logic. War often appears this way to the powerless, to civilians, and anyone outside of the decision-making process, which is to say most of us.
Astute readers have probably noticed that these poems are in haiku stanzas. In his preface to the book, Sullivan writes that all of the poems “came in the same linked haiku form.” The choice of haiku, although not intuitive at first, works unexpectedly well with the topic of war. It imposes a structure on inconceivable violence and tragedy, containing them in manageable, bite-sized sections. Each stanza, controlled within haiku’s syllabic restraints, functions almost as a separate poem; the white space between the stanzas gives the reader a place to breathe before moving on. Using the haiku form “cut(s) down the poem to its sinewy essence,” to quote Denise Levertov from Light Up the Cave. That essence is vital to the voices represented in the book, giving each one a distinct diction and vocabulary.
Angels are among those many voices. They provide commentary, speaking in detached and eerie tones. From “Angel Jibril (Gabriel), The Messenger:”Get out of the way, I could have said, but you had to believe someone would be forgiven
andyou go out soothed by the songs you’ve heard birds sing and come back sobbing.
Sullivan’s skill as a poet is evident as he moves from the impartial voice of an angel to the voice in “Staff Sergeant Alex Lemons, From His Wheelchair:”My dreams grow heavy with daily fuck-ups. I trudge back up garage ramps having forgotten where I parked and what the damn Impala looks like.
Again, the details make the poem real and vital: “I tried recovery, / but I’m not into talking / ‘bout what they can’t feel.” Most of us will never understand Alex Lemons’s suffering (in the notes to the poem, Sullivan writes that since returning to the US, Lemons has had fourteen operations on his damaged feet, which were “shredded due to an accident in Najaf”), nor the physical and emotional damage such an event has left him. Through the deep compassion of these poems, however, we have a place to enter.
“The Black Camel” evokes three distinct interpretations of the same event. Sullivan’s notes on the poem help explain the various sources for the story, but they are not necessary to fully enjoy it. The voices of an American soldier, an Iraqi Republican guard, and his heartbroken father, grow more anguished as the poem unfolds: “The IED hit / while I held his cigarette. / Where’s God, Tiffany?” and “Swore I saw my son, / but when they showed me, I cried / for a stranger boy.” Only the voice of Malak, the angel, stays consistent: “No one has been here / before you, no one will come / after you’re gone” and “Don’t cling to one form; / water continues to flow / after the pot breaks.”
These poems do not judge, nor are they therapy. They do not offer explanations. At the end of the book, I still didn’t know why men start wars, but I understood a more disturbing truth: that the capacities for violence and compassion live within every person, and quite often, comfortably side-by-side. As the Reverend Marilyn Sewell once wrote, “Most evil is done in the name of some greater good.” The poems in Every Seed of the Pomegranate recognize this paradox. They remind us that even though what happened in Iraq might seem far away, it’s as close as our backyard. We ignore it at our peril.
Every Seed of the Pomegranate by David Sullivan sounds like a collection that would have a deep emotional impact on the reader, particularly those who know soldiers — are related to them or friends with them — or who are even soldiers. Were these poems cathartic for the writer as they might be for a soldier? I’d like to think they would be, and Goss makes an excellent point about the capacity for violence and compassion living within every person and the paradox that it presents.