Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Sandra Kohler's Improbable Music

Improbable Music
by Sandra Kohler
Word Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

The poems in Sandra Kohler's new collection Improbable Music seem to draw on decades of mindful observation, both of the daily dramas inherent in family life, rivalries, resentments, addictions, and the dramas that unfold on the world stage, conflicts, wars and the legacies that violence bestows to those who must endure it. In both these realms there is the specter of loss and the void it leaves.

The collection's first poems deal with family: intergenerational loss and estrangement and the tension between siblings who are now without the parents who once bonded them. Sisters spar with and comfort each other in turn and a brother wonders whether he can save another from years of steady, incremental self-destruction.

In the final stanza of the collection's opening poem, “From the Albums of Strangers,” Kohler writes: “The dead cannot be/ robbed, the living touched; home is the place/ you can't get from here, your body the naked/ fact that cannot be hidden. The loved traveler/ who returns cannot be embraced, only held/ at arms' length and gazed into, a mirror,/ impenetrable, remote, impossibly close.”

In “The Age of Departures,” the narrator observes: “Once we thought each farewell the end/ of a world. Each is; worlds end every day./ The unthinkable is the natural: we learn this/ as we did our first language, slowly,/ unconsciously, resisting, disbelieving.”

Personal mortality is confronted in “White”: “... For days now, a recurrent pulsing in/ my diaphragm nags, aches, sets me to imagining/ fatality; this morning I realize why it's familiar:/ a fetus' quickening. The omens of life and death/ are twins: the threat of death, the promise of life;/ the threat of life, the promise of death.”

In “Transitions,” Kohler lightens the tone by indulging in some nimble language play, while remaining philosophical:

The first day of hunting season: I come to
the gray window and bring my gray landscape
to bear on this one. Bear is not what they're hunting
but buck. The heart is at bay, the heart astray in the
deepest woods, lost. I am going to the river, I'll
walk till the day is found again. That will
happen when my eyes permit it.

Later in the poem, she simply states, “I pick up my gun, my life.”

The poems in the collection's second section are centered around the appearance of a heron, dubbed Heraclitus, at the same river (but is it the same heron?) The Heraclitus poems are leaner and more impressionistic than the bulk of those in the collection, but with Kohler, it's often the meatier poems that pack more punch.

In those grouped together in the third section, “Writing the Wound,” the personal and political converge in moments of urgency. 
In a poem about the outbreak of war in Bosnia, Kohler muses: “We are only what we can bear to resent./ Does any of us star in anything other/ than the dark dream of the soul, its/ betrayal, its secret history of irrevocable loss...”

In a later poem she observes, “Rain and sleep and bombs. Yesterday we bombed Iraq./ Blotches of cloud over hills, to the north vanishing into/ fog, to the south, thickening to slate. A small gray-haired/ woman walks up the path as she does every morning./ Wind rises in the bare twigs of the mulberry...”
In “Heraclitus in Eastern Europe,” Kohler describes a grim sort of “human nature preserve”:

Our century's mapped in the forests,
rivers of Eastern Europe: rail lines stitched like
a wound leading to the Polish camps, mines
studding Bosnian wetlands, unmarked bones
beneath Balkan soil. It's our nature preserved
here: wars and their aftermath embedded in
the landscape, imploding at a touch, a step.

In “Borderlands,” she gazes unblinkingly at the full horror of war, the personal devastation that is forced on the uninvolved, a mother from a nonpolitical family who “never threw a stone.”

…the head of my son
was on one of the greenhouses...
four hundred meters away,
the head of my son. And I
kissed it,....I saw a hand
in one of the trees, and
I kissed the fingers.”

Kohler ends “Reading the Hebrew Scriptures” with “... None of our models of what life/ can be mirrors its intricate living machinery,/ answers its raw cry.”

The poems in the final section return to the realm of the personal. 
In “September Song,” the tone is somber: “... The garden's// become a scrim, a facade, something essential lost: we// stay in the garden but Eden walks out, leaving it....”

The collection takes its title from lines in “Maybe Sibelius”: “In the dream we are dancing,/ while making love, to improbable music, maybe/ Sibelius....”

The narrator has absentmindedly put words to this scrap of dream-music, the Beatles' “I've got to get you into my life.” She's unsure what the words signify. She bickers with her husband. He says she's obsessed with the garden.

The poem ends: “The rain/ is a sudden burst, deluge. You are what I have/ to get into my life. You are what I have. What/ if, hurtling through these storms, we forget to/ touch, to make the gesture that will heal us?”

In each of these poems, there is a chance of healing, of connection, a question that is raised like “the interrogative curve” that Heraclitus makes “in the scratched geometry of reeds...” Sometimes the chance is embraced.

These are poems that look deeply into the heart of matters and often emerge with not answers but solace in what can at least be shared.

“September Song” closes: “Pour me a small cup// of the wine we were drinking the night you first realized/ my laughter would be the last sound that warmed you,// the night I saw lights flicker at the end of my vision,/ and knew loving you was the mirage I'd subsist on.”

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