EILEEN TABIOS Engages
Manual by Richard Berengarten
(Shearsman Books, Bristol, U.K., 2014)
Imagems 1 by Richard Berengarten
(Shearsman Chapbooks, Bristol, U.K., 2013)
Simply? I adore MANUAL. I adore how Richard Berengarten and the book designers (the cover images and design are attributed respectively to George Hill and Will Hill) manifest the project’s underlying concepts through poetic form as well as book design. To explain, I must first show the book’s back and front covers:
As you can see, the covers present images of hands. To quote from the author’s Notes section, “When the book is closed, the hands on the covers are in the gestures of submission or prayer. When they are open, their gesture is of offering and receiving.” That’s Poetics 101 if one believes the reader completes the poetry experience offered by a poem—the poet begins the poetry experience and the reader (or viewer or recipient) completes it—such that the poem itself is a possibility and then an offer.
The images, of course, also relate to the theme as hearkened by the book title, Manual. About this, it’s useful to quote one of the blurbers, Paul Scott Derrick: “Hands turned to words. Words turned to hands. We usually take it for granted how our hands touch almost everything that touches our lives. Like all of Richard Berengarten’s work, the marvelously flowing, yet deftly controlled poems of Manual communicate a wealth of recognitions about how we manage to live, and to die, in the world—the kind of recognitions that we cannot easily afford to forget.”
“Deft, controlled poems,” indeed, leading me now to note the other aspect I adore about the poems: how Berengarten uses numerology to create (or constrain?) the poems’ formal structure. That is, “ten lines, ten fingers; two stanzas, two hands.” Such a constraint is useful for the 100 poems presented in this collection have a large expanse—to paraphrase another blurber Josephine Balmer, the poems “move through the breadth of human experience—birth, death, parenthood, childhood, joy, grief, passion, oppression and, above all, creativity.”
But the poems benefit from the poet’s marvelous control not only due to their form but also through impeccable diction. Here’s a sample where the words so elegantly portray the energetic possibilities of the sea:
The sea’s fists lunged at him, collared him
and held him in a loose, careless embrace
until he numbed and swelled. Then the sea’s
thorough fingers, examining and probing,
pulled him down into her primeval world.
As if with elegant fins and sails, he flew
among choral chambers and corridors
of rock, ascending and descending each
of their levels and spirals, until the sea’s fingers
brushed and rolled him back on her briny beach.
The book’s structure also strengthen the way the poems become a group, or collection. The book’s hundred poems are divided into five sequences and the book begins and ends with a “frame piece.” It’s an effective way to weave all the poems together. For instance, the second sequence is introduced by this epigraph:
Poetry will make use of her voice in order to
show herself to us. The poet will be swayed by
her. He will no longer be surprised when this
voice, confiding, takes on for him the form of a
hand: he will stretch out his own hands to her.
The theme resounds in the subsequent poems even as they continue to explore the terrain of hands. Here’s the first poem in the second sequence:
The woman sees the hunter approaching
She smiles and asks him to anoint her
to rub a little of the creature’s fat into the nape
of her neck and also just above the collarbone
He smiles and rubs her and he clutches her tight
She clutches the hunter so tight his hands
disintegrate and decompose as they touch her
his hands melt into her and his whole body
all his skins and organs and blood everything
except his bones and teeth and nails and hair
But even as the poems are clearly interconnected, each individual poem also offers its own strength. I was moved to tears, for instance, by the 4th poem in the fifth sequence:
In this house you have been before
many times you know it as soon as
your fingers push open the garden gate
and you find yourself in a place that belongs
to memory or memory of memory
and you walk from room to room
and a wind blows through and through you
all windows being open but there’s no
scent of the sea that’s been calling you
even though you can hear her voice
My mother moved into our house after my father died. My mother lived with us for six years and had her own bedroom. We used to call her bedroom the “Yellow Room” because of its wall colors. Now, even after her death, we still refer to that room as “Mom’s Room” or, for my son, “Abuelita’s Room.” When I read the above poem hearken “a place that belongs / to memory … or memory of memory” and so on into the rest of the second stanza, I am reminded of how strongly love and desire can linger and how a memory can be so palpable.
And perhaps that’s one of Manual’s concerns: how a touch can be forever, not in a sentimental sense but more the indigenous point of view that collapses time and place to a point where all things are interconnected. Thus, it’s appropriate that the book includes “a grainy photograph of the ‘Venus of Dolni Vestonice,’ which [Berengarten] took in the office of the director of the Museum of Moravia, Brno… in the late 1970s.” Berengarten would write the following poem after the image:
Here is the paleolithic Venus of Lower Vestonice
in her padded box placed on the concrete windowsill
of the 4th floor office of the Director of the Museum
of Moravia Brno Czechoslovakia March 1977
her left leg broken off estimated
the oldest clay-fired ceramic in the world
moulded between 27,000 and 31,000 years ago
before Mnajdra before Lepenski Vir before Atlantis
and the living left hand next to her is mine
Note the last line—how marvelous that history can be cupped—held, considered, caressed—by the mental hand. The book ends with this last poem:
Your hands play this film backwards.
They plough time down to its marrow.
Seeds they sow now will be harvested yesterday
where, hungry and thirsty for news,
the loved ones stretch out hands.
Everything your hands do makes sense.
Now that you have finished making this,
under their mountains the loved ones
who have been listening and watching attentively
clap hands in unison.
I, too, clap hands: RECOMMENDED.
I read MANUAL before reading Richard Berengarten’s chap, Imagems 1. In the above engagement with MANUAL, I referenced something I’m exploring with Filipino indigenous scholars—the notion of interconnection that transcends/collapses, among other things, time and place. Since Imagens 1 presents six statements that also act as poetics, I can say that the poet successfully manifested his theories in his poems, given that I was moved to reference the indigenous. Here is the first of “Twelve Propositions” in the chap’s first statement, “A Little Further?”:
1. There are no temporal or spatial centres. Everywhere/Everywhen is both centre and periphery. Octavio Paz answered Yeats’ complaint that “the centre cannot hold” (1919), with the assertion that “for the first time in our history, we are contemporaries of all humanity” (1950).
It goes on further to
4. A poet has responsibilities: social as well as subjective, communal as well as individual. Any emphasis on ‘spirituality’ in poetry, if it is not to caricature or betray itself, needs to involve critical commitment within, to and for both the past and future history of “all humanity”, and all nature.
5. Languages have gaps and holes and render reality imperfectly. To make a poem, a poet needs to travel through them into silence and to return through them from silence back into language: to test (tear) the boundaries between language and silence. This two-way movement between language and silence means that every poetic journey is a Heraclitean return, not a one-way flight.
And the chap ends with this last statement from the last statement, “On Poetry and Magnanimity.”
A poem is polysemous: it presents (manifests) multiple meanings latent in a single, singular truth. These meanings are here, are there, are for the giving and the taking. A poem’s central meanings radiate from its central core. They spread radially, at once possessed and dispossessed by the magnanimity of the light source.
By the coincidence of reading MANUAL and Imagems 1 together, one can see—admire and respect—the harmony between the poet’s theories and poems. It’s a lovely synchronicity to witness.
Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry. Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp. Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com