Review by Tryst Editor
I've tried to review this nondescript book, Becoming by Christopher Porpora, three times now and each time I have run into a wall. I'm finding with each successive read that the book as a whole is uneven. There are a few great poems, and many not-so-great poems, poems I would have simply put aside until they grew wings. The not-so-great poems could have been jotted down on a post-it-note, a napkin, or saved for a Hallmark Greeting - but not in a book. This two-line poem, three if you count the title, on page 2:
I confess I am seduced by beauty
But just as all have their call and duty,
I confess I am seduced by beauty.
is an indication of poor organizational skill; namely the forethought required to put together a book of poems: Winnowing through the poems and justification for their inclusion in a second book of poems. To begin the first line of a poem with "But" followed by "just" - even if one is trying to maintain iambic pentameter - is stultifying. It shows total lack of editing skill when you have such a short poem as this, where there is little room for the extraneous and even less room for abstract concepts as "beauty." The end result is wasted space.
The first poem in the book, "Two Poems" could have been a joke, written like a joke the punch line is nothing short of amusing as, "this little piggy cried wee, wee, wee, all the way home":
Of the first, the scholar and the critic both agreed:
Sublime content, precise form- perfectly married
Of the latter, the two's opinions would not part:
Such simplistic drivel makes mockery of the Art
A work-weary soul found the two by the road
And wondered, What is this that the wind has blowed?
Of the first, he inhaled the chill, biting air,
And confused, unmoved, resumed his despair
Of the second, he no longer felt alone,
And clutched the poem the whole way home.
Not only is the poem riddled with clichés, it's more of the poetic-conscious chaff. I do like the perfect end rhymes, and the slant rhyme in the the last couplet, but why would the poet risk marring a poem with "blowed" to rhyme with road? What is the point of using a possessive case with "two's opinions" when "two opinions" would have sufficed?
So far two mediocre poems, back to back, does not look promising for a book. But wait, the third poem, "Tender fathers" is actually quite good:
Watching this tender father
carry his sandaled, sleeping boy
through the archway
up the tiled steps,
stepping so, his arm
stretched, as if cradling
his own sleeping heart.
The imagery, simile, and the emotion are succinct. This is probably as tight as it can get, and yet, I would ask, why would one waste the word, "tender" in the first line when it's already in the title? Surely we can dispense with the word, "tender," use another descriptive word for the father and let the poem tend to its own feelings. This is an example of where the poet doesn't trust himself or his audience by over explaining the point.
I needn't tell you that the subsequent three poems, "Seeking you in the smoke," "Song," "Intersecting" are no better or worse than the first two, which is to say, they're easily forgettable. However, "The custard garden" on page 7 is rather interesting, if not ambiguous:
Never have I seen
such a gardeness
against the windmill
in heels she leans
Come give me a kiss
The word that caught my attention was, "gardeness" - it's a nice-sounding abstract noun; but what is a windmill doing in a garden? Maybe I'm reading this a little too literally. Is it the windmill whispering come give me a kiss, or is it the gardeness in high heels leaning against the windmill? Somehow, I'm not following the seductive logic here, and yet oddly enough, I like the sound of this poem.
By this time, I'm wondering what is the point of reviewing a book if I'm finding fault with almost every poem. Because there are some true gems in this book. The poem, "Draped in a curtain woven of your colours," should have been the first poem to launch this book; the fact that this poem lives on page 19, and I had to wade through that many pages to get this far seem masochistic even by my standards, but the poem was worth it:
Tired, I'm tired of hearing my voice
these empty words linger, weightless
mint leaves in a mojito
soaked with poison
dulling, they numb
All I know to do, to stop it
is go to all the windows,
how beautifully they hang, still
betraying the light
And no one is around,
and tear them down
rip them all down
. . .
The poem begins with a complaint - a very common affliction of writers - by the third line, it begins to pick up: words compared to "mint leaves in a mojito" - the imagery is crisp, and engages the senses with a visual to go along with the bittersweet taste. The second stanza is a treat: A double-paned observation, the windows acting as escape and imprisonment, deceiving and inviting: "how beautifully they hang, still/ betraying the light" - those lines are simply gorgeous. The third stanza, is a coup and should have been the end of the poem. Here the poem takes on action verbs, tearing down the facade with hope of liberty implied. Had it been the end of the poem, this one probably would have been my favorite.
"Passing, or, Song", might have been easily overlooked, but even in its simplest pangs, it is surprisingly lovely:
And I did think it lovely then
That afternoon of grey
To see the light upon her skin
In such a disarray
In such a disarray was I
That I forgot my name
But seeing light so heavenly
Was I restored again
What I'm starting to notice is that Porpora's voice is an old voice, leaning toward the romantic and somewhat reminiscent of Walter de la Mare; 'though it may be argued de la Mare was more accomplished, to Porpora's credit, there is a quiet steadiness to his voice that somehow maintains a sense of maturity and control. In all the poems there is no contemptuous attitude to be found, no teen angst, or juvenile ranting on about the whole world being against "us" kind of drivel. There may be a hint of sardonicism in, "I'm Thinking of Killing Myself," and a little morbidity in "Choral" but here again, Porpora maintains a calm collected outlook on death:
All is death outside of you.
Where you do not go death is.
The birds lament tragedies,
weary, sing the quietude.
Wherever hath she gone.
Where goes the darkest one.
And sunrise became sunset;
The dimming darkenings dyed.
Death is where you do not go.
Outside of you all is death.
Weary, sing the quietude.
Here is another gem - an excellent sonnet, "Until the sun of glory rise again":
Until the sun of glory rise again,
no celebration sing; remain amidst
the quiet tapers watching shadowed rain,
there, while sleeping days remember bliss
in dreams, uncover boxes jeweled bright
unmask forgotten remnants left behind
reveal those flowers dried beneath the light
and under all the dusty rags you find,
remembrances flood the doubting hour...
...Such silences at [as] absent songs reveal
what flames perfumed with dusk cannot conceal.
It's these kind of poems, and other gems to look out for, "What was uncovered," "Lifting the veil" "who will," "of the S. de S." ... that will keep a reader like myself engaged, digging through the whole rubble if necessary to find the promises of a writer. And that is precisely what kept me reading this book even though at times I thought it was fruitless. The plain and simple fact, Porpora isn't quite there yet, (hence the title of the book, "Becoming"); but there's a lot of potential in his writing, more than I've seen in some well-known, well-touted one-hit wonders; and far more than I've seen in most academic journals lately. Becoming didn't get the carte blanche, full pass I never promised, but it certainly deserves the chance to be appreciated. Christopher Porpora is definitely a talent to watch out for.
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