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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Scraps into Art -- Poetry by Bill Christophersen

"Two Men Fighting in a Landscape" 
Poems by Bill Christophersen 
Kelsay Books, 2015


Some poets are good at conveying the menace of the city, the dangers of life.  Others are able to pull back into a contemplative, pastoral calm.  Bill Christophersen’s great challenge is to give us both states at once.  The title poem, “Two Men Fighting in a Landscape” sums it up:  A bloody battle in the foreground, dawn breaking silently on the horizon.  As the Incredible String Band sang, it’s a “troubled voyage in calm weather.”  

In “Streetscape with Blazing Locusts,” the poet tells us that he lives on a mean street, on the edge of Harlem, where not long ago he was held up at gunpoint and lost his front teeth in the ensuing struggle.  Despite friends’ entreaties, he declines to move, attached as he is to the beauty of his surroundings.  This he finds on the pavement on a brilliant day after a Halloween rainstorm, when the “..broken sidewalk squares of run-down side streets/ mimic stained-glass windows for a couple of hours.”


“The Bee-Loud Glade,” is a takeoff on Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree.”  

            “I should arise and go now; but
            Something roots me here:
             paralysis of purpose?  striped
            chemistry of fear?

             No oracle but this hornet’s nest
            whose dark eye stares me down.
            A poet is a fool.  I’ll
            Take my chances in the town.” 

This city-country theme is just the surface of a collection that tackles the deepest questions of life, again and again in dialogue with poets and poetry, past and present.  Robert Frost says free verse is like tennis with the net down.  Writing with the net up, Bill defends free verse in his own terms – formal poetry is like swimming in lanes, free verse bodysurfing in the ocean. 

A chance encounter with Galway Kinnell leads to decades of meditation on the art and craft of poetry, and the gift of a poem to the master.  

Full disclosure:  Bill Christophersen has been a close friend of mine for nearly forty years, a twin fiddler and fellow scribe.  I love the guy, but it took reading this book to appreciate him fully.  His greatest talent is to take scraps of things and fashion them into works of art (cf. his solo recording of fiddle tunes “Hell and High Water.”)  That’s what he does in this collection, divided into four parts.  “Old Movies” is about growing up in the Bronx; “Walks of Life” his observations on fishermen, surfers, comics, copy editors, high rollers, long-distance runners and best of all – ironworkers in a skyscraper, eating lunch on a girder 69 floors up, walking the beams where, like everywhere, “the only peace we know is contingent..”   “Flight Patterns” pulls back and tries to take in the panorama of life and death on earth.  And the last section, “Two Men Fighting in a Landscape,” peeks into eternity, sees Jacob wrestling God to a painful draw, and wants to know “what’s the take-away?”  

He caps it all with a stunning epilogue, reaching all the way back to the origins of English poetry:  a translation from Anglo-Saxon of “The Wanderer.”  The hero is a lonely vagabond, wracked with cares, making his way through a landscape of loss, keeping his anguish locked away in “soul’s strongbox.”  And the very last sentence of a poem -- of a whole book -- lashed with fears and doubts, is a simple affirmation of faith.  

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips 

To order the book click here