Friday, March 6, 2009

Review of Paul Hostovsky's "Bending the Notes"

Review of Paul Hostovsky’s Bending the Notes (Main Street Rag, 2009, 108 pages)

I’d like to tell you everything about Paul Hostovsky’s new book of poems, Bending the Notes, but I can’t; it’s a large book, as books of poetry go, and covers a lot of ground: childhood, parenting, the world of the deaf, beauty, religion, and so on. I can, however, bend your ear towards some of the high notes.

My favorite part of the book comes early on. In fact, my favorite poem is the first one, “Coconut.” Having seen that “Coconut” was recited by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, I can’t read it without hearing it in Keillor’s distinctive, gently husky, painstakingly careful enunciations. And yet, that sort of reading works for this poem and for many of the poems in Bending the Notes. A number of the early poems in particular seem written from the voice of a speaker who is careful, calm, measured, and astutely observant of everyday miracles, such as “happiness” in “Coconut:”

Bear with me I
want to tell you
something about
it’s hard to get at
but the thing is
I wasn’t looking
I was looking
somewhere else
when my son found it
in the fruit section
and came running
holding it out
in his small hands . . . .

This is the voice of the grown up you always want to be with your own children, the grown up who is patient and gentle and able to remember the sense of awe, appreciation and exuberance with which we experienced things as children. The miracle of this book is that Hostovsky’s mastery of language is able to recreate again and again not only the child’s awe at the world but also the adult’s awe at the child. We experience this in poems like “Little League,” where the speaker talks of his daughter marveling at the miracles of a baseball game:

when someone hits a long foul ball
and everyone’s eyes are on it
as it sails out of play . . .
the ump has dipped his hand
into his bottomless black pocket
and conjured up a shiny new white one
like a brand new coin
from behind the catcher’s ear,
which he then gives to the catcher
who seems to contain his surprise
though behind his mask his eyes are surely
as wide with wonder as hers.

We see it again in “Conversations with My Son,” where the son asks, “Would you rather be buried or / crucified?” and, after his father’s deliberations, announces “I think I’d rather be crucified,” as he has

unbuckled his belt, unlocked the door
and reappeared outside, running up the hill,
his little backpack full of tools
bouncing on his shoulders,
a head on his shoulders full of questions,
questions escaping all over.

Later poems will acknowledge the harsher, more difficult aspects of living in the world, but in these early poems, Hostovsky embraces the child’s view and entertains the possibilities that view engenders. The speaker of “At the Optometrist,” for example, recaptures a moment of childhood innocence as he sits in the examination chair:

. . . It’s all about
which one I prefer here in the dark,
with a place to rest my chin, me and the doc
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and so I just keep on focusing on
which one I like best, while he focuses
on making something out of it for me. I could
do this all day long. It reminds me
of childhood--what childhood ought to be:
questions concerning your favorites,
painless and gentle, someone tying your shoe
while you sit in a chair thinking of other
things. . . .

Similarly, the speaker of “Every American Child” imagines a world where childhood appreciation of beauty is never lost to the necessary business of the adult world:

. . . And every American child will
be expected to learn by heart the history of the blues
because the history of the blues is an American
story, which some American grownups can’t be trusted
to tell, much less sing, to their American children.

Not every poem in the book, however, features such idealism or expresses such patience and calm. As the speakers and subjects of the poems age and the emotional realities become more complex, a different sort of poem emerges, one that is breathless and anxious, such as the prose poem “Deaf House” and “The Pigeons of Lynn,” which is full of complex sentences and relative clauses. This style of poem is repeated throughout the second half of the collection, but the possibilities it offers for expression and the penchant the poems have for humor and understated depth are perhaps most enjoyable in the brilliant poem, “Bicycles:”

It’s like we’re all bycycles
and we all have these handlebars
and some of the handlebars and some
of the seats are incredibly beautiful
not to mention the way the wheels spin
and the bells ring
and the reflectors reflect and we can’t
look at them and we can’t stop looking at them
and all we really want is to get on top of them
and ride off into the sunset but they say
hey I’m not a bicycle okay
I have an eternal soul that you can’t see
because you’re so focused on my handlebars

There is so much more offered by Hostovsky’s poetry. It is, as I’ve said, a large book whose ultimate goal is to help us know what to do with life and love and beauty, to teach us how “to bend the notes.” And ultimately, in learning so much about life himself, Hostovsky reaches the point that every master does, the point where he realizes how little he knows. That knowledge is best expressed in the book’s final metaphor in the poem “My Statement,” ostensibly about a flute:

. . . from the moment I lifted the thing,
I couldn’t put it down--wherever I tried
to stash it or ditch it, it stuck out painfully

like some herniated part of the body
of beauty, the inner beauty of the world, secret and silver
and singing out from the enclosure

of my desire for it. I couldn’t keep it. I couldn’t lose it.
I couldn’t even play it. So I gave it back and now

I only want to be believed.

No comments:

Post a Comment