Book Reviews

The Half-Life: Poems by Roger Greenwald

The Half-Life by Roger Greenwad
(Rochester, NY: Tiger Bark Press, 2020.
98 pages. ISBN-13:978-1-7329012-5-4)

A certain fraction of my life
has been different, that’s the part
that was life....

(from “The Address Book”)

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:

The Half-Life of Sorrow

is about five years.
The decaying, scintillating dust
sits in the small cells of the lung
and colors your breath,
sits in the marrow and colors your blood,
sits in the bile duct.
The half-life isn’t hard
to understand.
It means the sorrow
will be half gone in five years,
what’s left will then take five again
to diminish by half.
So it will never stop flashing
in your life, though your life
will stop it eventually.

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”:

We hold our bodies; mine shakes.
It shakes and shakes till my seed
is making dry music like a gourd’s.
Seed and language, mine and hers,
deepest flesh I have. No end to
shake and sing while the blood goes.
in your life, though your life
will stop it eventually.

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:

Should I run out to the streets whenever
I wake in the evening, the past
quaking into the gap between my dream
and knowing which day it is, streets
whose failure I’ve already read, searching
my address book like a wound.

 Later it is part of a statement:

 ... it’s when I think of you
that “should” invades my chest
like the wind off a glacier,
though just to be fair—because I should—
I blame myself for breathing it.

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.

She gave me
the feet of a goat, the eye
of an apple, the tongue
of a waterfall, a child’s
new jacket and the heart
of a man. Peace
and then no peace.
She gave me a life
and took it back.
I gave her a life;
she took it with her.
Thanks, she said.

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.


Someone phoned me at 5 a.m.
from Europe. I could hear
the wires breathing, alert
distance. Between my hellos
the circuits shoved No Signal
from gate to gate. If you were me
you’d know who it was, fresh-smelling
book in her lap, the past (like
everything else) real
when it’s in her hand. Things
the way she wants them. Just
making sure
the corpse is still in the ground. 

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.


I’m doing my best to make my home an office,
pile notebooks on the dining room table
and do my marking there, the study’s
already piled as high
as the bureaucrat’s office in Ikiru.
The plants are dusty, I never repot them,
water them once a week at most,
like to feel we’re surviving the same way.
Cardboard boxes, unemptied waste baskets, no visitors.
Never cook here, paint the walls or even wash them.

Still, nothing crumbles fast enough.
The pipe is bright red, the window frames
rich brown or egg-yolk. Molecules
have long memories, e.g. the springs
in the living room mattress: someone was
jumping there once when there was music in the house
and now when the sun bangs in through finger-streaked windows
I see dust-motes going up and down
and the air looks tanned.

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:

 ... It’s him
she cries out to, not alone
her pleasure. That moves me.
And memory. And lack of sham.
I don’t know which neighbor
I’m hearing. Close my window
quietly. Whoever it is, I’m—
happy for her?

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 –

“My name is that grass,” she points
    to an inlet where the curve is sweet
proportion, repose, an almond
    of water that eyes my hip
as I bike by—rippling and the sway of
    resilient color of straw.

– and arrives at a surprising ending:

I’m ahead of her, already
    among the grasses, child and father.

Poems that describe chance encounters often have strong lyrical or erotic qualities. “Passerby,” which considers missed chances and unspoken words, begins:

Her glance slides past. This is the palm
that cups it, slow curving arm.
What are you doing? she smiles.
I’m catching your eye.
So verbal—later. This palm
stayed in its pocket, she followed
her glance, did not become a you.
Would we want each to be
“you”? How can questions
continually breathing
die before they’re asked.

“A Crossing,” a poem with an alluring charm, deals with an encounter that leads to a wistful meditation. It ends this way:

The water’s calmer now, city coming up
behind our backs. If we’d been together
three years or even the stretch of these ten
rather than hours, it would feel in the wind here
exactly as still, in our minor ordeal
as full of a common past as this moment
oddly seems, as if the chance of a destination
conjures the wake that leads there; and its widening,
its reflections, braid us into something
that has grown always, and will yield
the iridescent fabric we’ve deserved.

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:

... And why
 was she crying, then? You’ll have to figure it out yourself,
 it’s not so hard, it’s just the sort of thing
 she couldn’t have said in the Sofia Church
 before she walked out the door
 shaking her head a little and still dabbing her eyes.

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.

On your last day the clouds expand
    like time and you suddenly stroll
at low pressure toward the evening
    as if toward a mountain cabin
you can reach whenever you like, your reservation
    perpetual as the snow.

At the end of the poem:

   ... we can see how we merge into each other;
how earth and sky give rise
 to something spirited and edible, and we
to other voices before this leisurely walk
 stumbles over a careless rock in the half-light.

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


More by :  P. G. R. Nair

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Views: 3572      Comments: 1

Comment PGR. I find your write up absorbing, to say the list. The metamorphosis of imagination springing from experience, and then growing wings as thoughts, poured out in the form of great poetry has been always a topic of interest to me since I was in school. The poems of Greenwald which you have analysed beautifully creates these very sentiments in me now. I wonder if you have any references or insight into some great poems- from the idea to the final poem... how they came about. Would be interesting

Krishna Kumar
25-Mar-2021 06:10 AM

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