Thursday, August 11, 2016

John Reibetanz, Afloat


Though I read quite a bit of poetry, I'm rarely quite comfortable with what I'm reading. It takes a different commitment than does reading fiction or nonfiction, different tools, and as a reader you benefit from quite a different relationship with text.

It took some time for me to appreciate John Reibetanz' Afloat as much as I’ve come to, and it wasn't clear to me at first why that should be so. Mostly Reibetanz' poetics emphasizes clarity over obscurity, image over abstraction, rhythm over intertextuality, and that's generally where I find myself gravitating, unawares. But I experienced the book as uneven, surprisingly so, though I recognize that some readers are doing to see there instead a diversity of method.

For me, the opening section of the book feels the weakest, and it wasn’t until the middle section (reflecting on the Three Gorges Dam) that I felt fully at home in the reading, even if that sensation faded again toward the book's end. Even through my limited and carping perspective, though, I can see that there’s some terrific work here, some of it quasi-prosaic (“Glaciologist. Tracking / a glacier. Who will he be / when it’s not?” [“Glaciologist,” p.18]) but some of it more elevated or otherwise poetic, as in Reibetanz’ reflection on monarch butterflies that Homero Aridjis might have observed:
o lover of mountain streams that echo      the soft rain     of rallying wings      sing the rhythms you share with them
that heart and butterfly may lift      and find their way home.

(“The Monarch Butterfly Migration, 1943,” p.73)
Frankly the sequence "Laments of the Gorges," on the Three Gorges dam project, is exceptional, and if Reibetanz wins awards or accolades for this book, I'd bet that this section is responsible. There are also some wonderful poems in the final section, but as a total collection, well, I've read some other books of poetry recently that struck me consistently with more intensity than did Afloat. For the right reader, this would be a terrific collection of mostly lyric verse, even if I'd rather read Basma Kavanagh or Emily McGuffin, who themselves are mostly working in the lyric mode.

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