Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review of Bruce Lader's "Landscapes of Longing

Review (First published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Landscapes of Longing
by Bruce Lader
Main Street Rag (2009), 90 pages, $14
ISBN: 9781599482057

One of the epigraphs of Bruce Lader’s new collection of poetry, Landscapes of Longing, suggests that one, “Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes . . . . Then wilt thou never think a mean thought, nor covet anything beyond measure” (Epictetus). While this imperative might help justify the subject matter explored in these poems, Epictetus’s suggestion that such healthy perspective could be attained as easily as this is perhaps a bit Romantic, as is made abundantly clear by the speakers of the poems in Landscapes of Longing. Nevertheless, the epigraph and the title do make it clear what unites this otherwise apparently diverse collection of work, namely that these poems are all about the daily struggle to attain or maintain perspective. One poem after another proposes answers to the question: what can we learn from each other, from our lives as human beings, from the inevitability of disappointment, despair, longing in all its innumerable varieties.

By writing about longing, failure, persistence, and perspective, Lader writes honestly, unflinchingly, about what it is to be human. Not surprisingly if such verisimilitude is one of his goals, the poems are spoken in a variety of voices, as would be any accurate record of any human life. The first and perhaps most memorable of these voices is that of a teacher at a school for troubled boys, “ninth graders no one would bet on / discarded by split parents” (“Attendance Check”). This narrator recognizes the existential persistence of these boys as they long for such elemental human ambitions as justice and opportunity:

And yet their feisty, undefeated spirits
grapple with prison sentences
of poverty . . . .
they dodge and gamble to exist . . . .
stay afloat in the system chiseling them.

The narrator goes on to teach the reader to see beyond the surface, to see the humanity behind the stereotype and statistic, as in “Promises,’ where the tough from the boys home, longing for decency and love, revealingly promises his girl “I won’t leave you / the way my old man left my mother turning tricks.” And he teaches us, through the image of his hemophiliac friend Robert Goldstein in “A Brief History of Prejudice,” who longed to experience as much as he could while he could, to value life more urgently as we come to understand that it could end sooner than we imagine possible.

Other voices in this first section of the book range from that of a teenage boy surprised to be learning from his father’s competitiveness, from his longing to be extraordinary (“Breaks”); to that of the same boy become father and longing now to make sense of violence for his own son (“Quandary”); to a chorus of voices from war, longing for peace, for reason, and for acceptance of responsibility. This last set of voices illustrates how the individual despair and criminal behavior we might sometimes be tempted to decry in the first poems are mere microcosms of what we do and suffer on a larger scale. These voices also set the stage for the middle section of the book where the longing moves from the first section’s apparently personal concerns to a larger social and political arena.

This middle section of the book announces the context out of which these voices of longing arise in its title: “Interviews Following the Sentencing of Sisyphus.” Lader provocatively and amusingly imagines what a variety of figures would say if questioned about the trial of Sisyphus. The speakers are philosophers, goddesses, priests, and prophets among others, each one weighing in like ancient bloggers, their opinions, as is usually true of opinions, revealing more truth about themselves than about that which they speak of. Not surprisingly, what unites them all is the sense of longing they reveal, whether it be longing for justice or retribution, truth or reform, or just the opportunity to have their perspectives considered. Perhaps the underlying question in this section is if we accept the idea of Sisyphus as a metaphor for human endeavor, then don’t we also have to accept the actions of Sisyphus as indicative of what we are capable of? Certainly the speakers in this group of poems, with their apparent myopia, self-interest, and lack of forgiveness do nothing to refute that implication.

Having begun with poems of longing in a semi-individual context (family, profession, community) and proceeded through a larger social and political context, Lader concludes with a series of poems that illustrate longing on the most personal and intimate level: the longing for love, for the maintenance of the individual in love, and for the seemingly impossible persistence of love. In other words, the final section of the book, like each previous section illustrates that such things as fairness, justice, and even love are not as easy as we would like to think. These poems, after all, feature voices that proclaim, “I reserve the right / not to shed my soul” (“Behold”), “You’re not the only one / who can say No” (“Jig”), and “they felt something /missing grow between them, / inwardly resented the cherished / offspring who siphoned their energy” (“Soulmates”), before finally announcing “They will go there, / and to Moscow, when he partners the dances / she wishes he'd learn, the salsa, rumba, / swing, and tango millionaires tried seducing / her with, until he swept her off her feet” (“Trade-offs”).

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic insight! Especially in this quote -
    "This last set of voices illustrates how the individual despair and criminal behavior we might sometimes be tempted to decry in the first poems are mere microcosms of what we do and suffer on a larger scale."