Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Practice on Mountains

By David Bartone

Reviewed By Kristina Marie Darling

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In his stunning debut collection, Practice on Mountains, David Bartone seamlessly weaves together a wide variety of literary influences. As the book unfolds, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Henry David Thoreau appear alongside Li Po, Dante, and Cervantes, suggesting the impossibility of identifying with a single artistic tradition in an increasingly global society. Presented as a series of short vignettes, which drift between prose and verse, Bartone reveals the contemporary prose poem as inextricable from haiku, haibun, and the spare, image-driven lyrics of the early Modernists. With that in mind, Bartone’s Practice on Mountains is remarkable in its efforts to situate American poetry, even in its now insular state, within an impressively cosmopolitan array of cultural texts, artistic movements, and literary figures.

Bartone’s treatment of Ezra Pound’s work is especially impressive. Frequently calling attention to Pound’s fascination with Eastern poetry and visual artwork, Bartone suggests that a diverse array of cultures and literatures have provided the foundations for what we now consider American poetry. Throughout the book, Pound appears as a kind of messenger, making non-Western poetry, its techniques, and its literary forms available to his contemporaries and future generations through both translation and his own artistic practice. Bartone’s book, in some ways, becomes a testament to the crucial role of Pound’s work in broadening Western consciousness. Consider this passage:

The title is Pound’s. The formal shape of the poem on the page is Pound’s. Some phrases and entire lines are Pound’s; the epigraph is his. The poetics are more mine, not Li Po’s, not Pound’s…

Here Bartone attempts to distinguish his own voice from the cosmopolitan literary influences that pervade his consciousness. His attempts to classify, label, and catalogue aspects of his style suggest that these influences frequently blur into one another, and as a result, we cannot attribute our aesthetic choices to only one culture, school, or movement. I find it fascinating that Bartone’s book reads as a literary genealogy, an effort to unearth the roots of his own creative vision. In many ways, Bartone’s working genealogy suggests the difficulty of claiming ownership over a literary text, as the individual voice arises from a global community. Practice on Mountains is filled with poems like this one, which prove to be as well read as they are thought provoking.

Along these lines, Bartone envisions most poetry as arising from one’s life as a reader, suggesting the importance of translations, archival research, and historical knowledge to the creative process. In a literary culture that often privileges autobiographical writing, I find this definition of poetry refreshing and altogether exciting. Reminiscent of Marianne Moore’s notion of “conversity,” in which poetry is described as a conversation between artists and writers, Bartone’s book reads at turns as poetry, translation, ars poetica, and a ledger of literary and artistic influences, suggesting that these types of inquiry prove to be inextricable from one another. Bartone writes:

I have seen the poem both ways.

Even in Kyoto, how I long for old Kyoto when the cuckoo sings.

And with lyricism an emphasis falls on longing.

When in Kyoto
hearing the cuckoo retch—
I long for Kyoto.

—Basho.

What’s interesting about this passage is the way that Bartone conflates the contemporary with the historical, and pairs lived experience with canonical texts. Rather than privileging originality (a mistake that poets often make), Bartone embraces the rich tradition he has inherited, suggesting that innovation takes place in tandem with received wisdom. As Bartone moves between Basho’s text and his own, he also blurs the boundaries between genres, suggesting the relevance of contemporary cross-genre writing for representing and accounting for one’s literary heritage. Indeed, translation, interpretation, and autobiographical writing are woven together gracefully, allowing these different types of writing to illuminate and complicate one another. Like much of the collection, this poem challenges established boundaries between genres, traditions, and literary genealogies, proving to be both engaging and thought-provoking all the while.

Few first books exhibit the breadth of knowledge and technical dexterity that one sees in Bartone’s Practice on Mountains. This gifted poet moves gracefully between literary forms, cultures, and a diverse array of literary influences while remaining faithful to his own artistic vision throughout the collection. His book is as cosmopolitan as it is expertly crafted. This is a smart and beautifully rendered debut from a remarkable new poet.

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of eighteen books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Poetics at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo.