Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading Neil Aitken's "The Lost Country of Sight"

When I roomed with Neil Aiken at the Kundiman poetry retreat in 2005, I recognized in him another migratory spirit. Neil was born in Vancouver, but grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and various parts of western Canada and the United States. When we met, he was doing his creative writing MFA at the University of California, Riverside, and two years later his first book won the 2007 Philip Levine prize.

A road runs through The Lost Country of Sight. A road that observes intently the country it enters, and leaves, and then re-enters. Individually keen, the observations do not, however, describe external realities so much as internal states. The poetry is essentially introspective. This is its strength, but also its danger. It risks making one country very much like another. Love, loss, longing--these psychological states are distinctly evoked in poem after poem, whereas Taipei, Hsin Chu, Kaohsiung, Saskatoon, Astoria (in Oregon), Los Angeles, they are really interchangeable in this poetry.

That interchangeability, in turn, poses a question for deeper introspection. If one loves a country so much, why does one leave it? If one longs for a city so much, why does one not return to it? The book does not provide an answer. What would such an answer look like? It will say something about the poet,  something perhaps less immediately likable, say, an addiction to the rush of novelty, or a ruthlessness in remaking life into poems. It will also say something about the places, something more opinionated, say, Canada is too small for ambition, or Taiwan too corrupt for poetry. To speak of love and loss alone can leave so much unsaid.

Love and loss are eloquent, however, on the subject of people. Unlike the places in the book, people pass away, and so they cannot be revisited, except in memory. An achievement of this book is to map the loss of a father on the loss of one's place in the world. Some poems take an indirect approach, as in the wonderful "The Shape of Things." It begins with an assertion: "Nothing about us that we can see is permanent," but casts doubt on it in the very next line: "Or so it seems." In a series of magical images, the poem illustrates what remains after death, "[h]ow loss/ clings to a shape, how it loves a form. Like water":

or the late summer rain which cannot halt the last leaf's fall,
but blesses the oak nonetheless, a consolation of sorts,
a farewell the color of lightning and flame. Whatever it is--
that having filled its measure, must ultimately overflow.

"Shape," "rain" and "measure" make me think of a rain gauge in the last line. "Overflow" is a kind of loss but the image transforms loss triumphantly into fulfillment and abundance. How right that "ultimately" is. Rising to the brim is not the last step; there is still the final, irrevocable, step of overflowing. The logic is found in the image, and not imposed from outside.

The poems that speak of the father's death directly are no less powerful. Exceptional among them is "Traveling through the Prairies, I Think of My Father's Voice," which C. G. Hanzlicek, the prize judge, praised as "a perfectly made poem." The poem approaches the death rattle from an unexpected angle: "How we must have seemed like twins over the phone." The opening at once captures both ideas of similarity and difference, similar material, different locations. The poem wonders if the twinning-over-distance was caused by "genetics" or the influence of "mockingbirds and mimeographs." Dismissing both science and fancy as explanations, it then offers the truly imaginative reason:

                                                          I have heard two trains sound
almost alike till they passed, like the one last night bending westward,
the other slowing to a halt, the earth shuddering in the dark between,

while the stars held their place overhead, a thousand points of tin and fire.

The brevity of the passing moment ("almost alike" is so short in the long verse line) is tremendously moving. That much we share with our parents before we roll on with our lives, while they must pull into some station. The more conventional view is that we follow behind our parents in our common trudge to the grave. But Aitken here has seen, or heard, the possibility of imagining it otherwise, in the image of passing trains. And while the earth between us measures our growing distance, the stationary stars are still a fixed reference point for our common mortality.

The poem goes on to speak of "the straight road" that brought the speaker to where he stands. He has seen the bareness of the land, despite the green fields of new wheat, rye and canola. That oxymoronic landscape affords the speaker a view of the grain elevators being taken down, leaving only "small metal bins." The imagination sees in this complex image the way the disease took the father by degrees, "the body jettisoning what it could." The metal bins become "the steel doors" of his eyes, holding the storm rattling within. The last thing to go was his breath, "the body's voice," repeating the only name it knew. And in a final imaginative move, the breathing is compared to

a lullaby sung to a restless child on a heaving deck, a hush we only learn
in the quiet dark long after the boat has gone and the waves have ceased.

The "restless child" could be the dying father or the father as a (migrant) child; it could also be the speaker, in the past or present. The combination of possibilities gives force to the "we," another brief moment of togetherness. The trains changed into a car have morphed into a boat, which not only crosses the waters of death but also transports the soul on the next stage of its journey. If the end of the body's storm is a relief,  the ending "the waves have ceased," paired in parallel structure with "the boat has gone," also conveys a profound sense of loss. The ending is also exquisite.

Neil credits me with getting him to drop his earlier title for the book. I don't remember what it was, but it must have been pretty dire. The strange thing was, though I sensed in him a kindred migratory spirit, I was more impressed at that time by a difference, that he was Mormon and I was lapsed Baptist. There are two or three poems in his book very different from the rest. "Litany" and "To Jeremiah, Dreaming" are religious poems. I don't think they are very good but in them something more than a contemporary lyric voice can be discerned. A voice that prays to angels.


aq said...

Sounds like a book I'll connect with! I'll look for it.

Rui said...

i've got a poem about loss called 'the shape of things'. wrote it last year. does that make me guilty of copyright infringement? :)