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The Half-Life: Poems by Roger Greenwald
|by P. G. R. Nair|
The Half-Life by Roger Greenwad
Roger Greenwald is an American poet based in Toronto who has won several major awards for his poetry and his translations of Scandinavian poets. He has won the CBC Literary Award twice, and in 2018 he won the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Award from Exile Magazine. He has published two earlier books of poems, Connecting Flight and Slow Mountain Train.
The Half-Life, Greenwald’s third book of poems, is in three sections whose titles suggest movements in different keys: “Body Dreams,” “Home on the Range,” “Open Water.” It is essentially a book of loss; its leitmotif is melancholy. Memories stream in from different spaces and time zones. Dreams, love, separation, longing, chagrin, chance encounters, and journeys are all themes that are woven into poems in this amazingly engaging book. This is a poet who has seen and experienced life’s many cycles: its panic, pain, pleasure, paradoxes, and perplexities.
The book opens with a single poem before the first section begins:
This poem poignantly captures the way sorrow lurks in the corners of our lives even though it diminishes over time. Its first impact, shock, is evoked in the first half of the poem. In the second half it becomes a dull ache that keeps flashing on and off. In the decay of radioactive elements, the half-life period is the amount of time required for radiation to fall to half its initial level. The poet says that although sorrow decreases in this way, it gets snuffed out only when our life ends. I love the way Greenwald has conceived this poem on a scientific principle that also reflects the reality of sorrow in our lives. The absurdity of living brightens the poem.
The first section of the book, “Body Dreams,” draws on the levels of the self that both idyllic dreams and nightmares emerge from. There are many poems in this section that openly deal with a deep love relationship, its perfume, apprehensions, fears, and disenchantment. The visual quality of Greenwald’s poems and their striking imagery are evident in the poem “Body Dreams”:
In “Should You Ever Leave Unanswered,” the emphasis is verbal: the poet associates the word “should” with the absent one in several different ways, as the ambiguity of the title suggests. In many stanzas the word begins a question:
Later it is part of a statement:
And the poem concludes with a long unfinished clause that echoes the ambiguity of the title.
“Giving” goes further in portraying a sense of chagrin and squandered effort in the relationship that is the focus of the whole first section of the book. The lyrical passage below uses good imagery to express a reciprocity that goes awry; it closes the poem on a terse ironic note.
The book’s second section. “Home on the Range,” gives us the poet at home on a realistic level rather than through dreams. But the “range” available in the city is limited, not the wide-open one of the American cowboy song, so this title contains an irony.
Greenwald is quite good at expressing an edge of anger or bitterness, managing some distance from it even when clearly in pain, as in the powerful short poem “ ‘Acknowledgments’ .” The last line shocks.
There is another engrossing poem called “Someone” in this section. The speaker begins by describing the torpor and clutter in his home. The home-office atmosphere reflects his state of mind. Routine activities are deferred, and everything tends toward decay and disintegration.
The second stanza ponders how yet more things may fall apart than in the first, though not at the same pace. The paint molecules and the mattress springs preserve memories for a long time; so that’s what doesn’t crumble away. There used to be “someone” jumping on the mattress who is no longer there. There used to be music in the house – no longer. A person can be tanned, but here the memory of a tan can be projected only onto the air. Objects can be seen, touched, and heard, but they are more than just physical objects. This poem powerfully recognizes that and presents them as reminders of loss and sorrow.
This theme is continued in a beautiful poem that surprised me, titled “Sounding.” The speaker hears from his window across an alley from another building the sound of a woman’s cry. Listening with concern to the gradations of sound, he soon realizes that it is a cry of pleasure. The opening line of the poem, “I haven’t heard this sound in years,” goes some way toward explaining the mixed feeling that the poem ends with:
The third section of The Half-Life, “Open Water,” presents the poet away from home, having the new encounters that travel affords or pausing in solitude, but never far from the memories that travel with him. If there is one landscape that recurs throughout the book, it is the Scandinavian one. Since the poet is a well-known translator of many Scandinavian poets, it is no surprise that he is familiar with this landscape and the people living in it: their variety of customs, attitudes, mindsets.
“Among the Grasses” begins with a strong visual description –
– and arrives at a surprising ending:
Poems that describe chance encounters often have strong lyrical or erotic qualities. “Passerby,” which considers missed chances and unspoken words, begins:
“A Crossing,” a poem with an alluring charm, deals with an encounter that leads to a wistful meditation. It ends this way:
It is in this last section of the book that music becomes an important subject. It is referred to in the first section (“In the Pines”) and more frequently and explicitly in the second (“First Night Warm Weather,” “Home on the Range,” “Music Building, University of Toronto”), but here music’s evocative, elegiac, and therapeutic effects on listeners emerge strongly. “Loss” describes a woman who, at a concert in a Swedish church, begins crying for unknown reasons. The poem gives some clues but ends:
In the three-part poem “Evening Raga,” the poet is the listener at a concert, this time one given by Indian musicians on tour (in Norway, it would seem). The poem itself has a raga-like structure and is highly musical in its rhythms. It opens with a detailed narrative in past tense. The second part, which describes the concert, suggests that the first part is a memory triggered by the music and offers reflections on the memories. The third part is an extended meditation on music that returns to the memories and casts them in a somewhat different light. This is a major poem that weaves together narrative, imagery, philosophical reflection, and emotion carried by the music of language.
The last poem in the book, “Dilation,” is breathtakingly beautiful. It is meditative, mystical, existential, and dreamy. The poem enchants the reader right from the start, where “your last day” refers to the poet’s imminent departure on a flight but also suggests a vision of the end of life, an idea that is further developed at the end of the poem.
At the end of the poem:
It is interesting to note how certain words recur in many poems. For example, “half,” from the title of the book, its opening poem, and its last line quoted above, appears in “half-Jew but half-balsa” (“In the Pines”), “half-pound” and “half-consumed” (“On Terms”), “half like // violin and half like microtome” (“As the Temperature Drops, the Air Releases Its Voice”), “half hearing” (“Music Building, University of Toronto”), and “half-clean” (“A Crossing”). “Night” is another word that appears in many poems that reflect myriad shades of it.
Greenwald is an astutely intelligent poet. One can observe this in his striking imagery and in his use of apt and expressive metaphors, including medical and scientific ones, to reflect mental states. He is also sensitive and evocative. The poems in The Half-Life show that he has a unique style emblematic of his persona. His rich exposure to a variety of cultures and art has enabled him to craft dexterous poems with a remarkable musicality. What makes his poems most engaging is their intimate address to the reader and their sustained appeal to the head and heart. The Half-Life is a rewarding and healing book of poems that can console any reader who has known life’s ups and downs. Greenwald has opened a new realm of poetry that is accessible, original, introspective, and inventive.
Photo Courtesy : ALF MAGNE HESKJA
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03/25/2021 06:10 AM
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