Book Review

Hafiz’s Little Book of Life (Translated by Gary Gach and Erfan Mojib), Hampton Roads Publishing (2023)

Spring can make me want poems whose pleasure comes as quick and unexpected as the purple burst of a crocus. Luckily for me, a new translation of Hafiz, Hafiz’s Little Book of Life, has been at hand for many months, giving me joy’s mystic startle even in the midst of winter months. Erfan Mojib and Gary Gach offer a gathering of the thirteenth century Persian poet divided among his primary cares, here offered (as signal of their green vitalities) as gardens: “Garden of the World,” “The Garden of Wine,” “The Garden of Love,” “The Garden of Wisdom,” “The Garden of Ecstasy.” Open to a random page, and the poem—or poems—found there will betray the ease of assuming antiquity arrives with time’s mustiness as persiquite to admission. Credit to the translators, who abundantly prove the ancient is the place at which we have not yet arrived. Here, drunkenness is a form of initiation into the sacred, a holiness that requires the erotic to be whole:

Were I to see

Your face

In my goblet of wine

My turban

Would burst into space

Like a bubble

The pleasure of the poem is immediate, but the nature of the image is cosmically complex. To look down in a goblet of wine should show only one face: your own. To find another face there—that’s ecstasy at a nearly etymological level: to be outside of oneself. Here God, Lover, Absolute Other, is so intimate to self it is the primary self. (Rimbaud: “I is other.”) But the profundity of the image goes further. To see so makes of oneself but a bubble brimming in a cup of wine. How can a poem both reduce us to our actual status, our life no more than a bubble, and yet, by that honest diminishment open us to an overbrimming wisdom? I hardly know; but I know it’s true. The gift here is the contradiction—as a mystic poet would have it. We are closed buds, our internal April a constant state. But:

If the work of the world

Seems closed like flower buds


A knot-opener

Like the spring breeze

I’m not exactly religious, but amen.

The Verdant by Linda Russo, Middle Creek Publishing (2024)

It’s an earthly prayer, that prayer of Hafiz’s, one we need now more than ever. Linda Russo, ecopoet of the Palouse watershed, seems to me to have written a book that places that ancient prayer into present crisis. The Verdant, just out from the increasingly essential regional press Middle Creek Publishing, is a book-length poem of invocation and realization. It is a question we seldom ask, but Russo asks it—what is it, how is it, to say I in a poem? That simple pronoun quietly sets the ethos in a poetics. Is the “I” an empirical certainty? Is the “i” a humbled subjectivity? Neither here seems to work: “The desire for a novel pronoun became pronounced. Attuned to possibilities of sympoeisis, and turning often to Land and to the landscape during fertile and fallow periods, ‘ (  ’ became the pronoun on which the story could come to rest.” Here, the self becomes more a mark of grammar than a sentient entity, an open parenthesis with no close, as if to imply the nature of the self is to take the world within, but never to be closed off from it, a permeable self, a porous consciousness, never merely internal, the very ground in which a “sympoeisis,” a “making-together,” a “thinking-together,” can occur. The individual poems are but instances, delays or days of a kind, in the larger motion of the poem entire, a place in which one can be:

done hoarding fictions     of source and self

            in an archive     of solitary construction

The Verdant offers itself as paean, that ancient song of healing—here, the healing is a form of wounding, of woundedness, that removes us from the delusion of our isolation from the world, even as it recognizes that very delusion has put the world itself at risk. Each page performs the same ritual, an invocation in gray scale, a poem of the permeable self, and on the right-hand margin, italicized language that acts as some response to the call of ( ’s song, a lowercase law of the cosmos.

                                          ponderosa pine, cow parsnip, porcupine, come in

with small knowledge    ( declare a place sacred

              finding that    a river runs

                      fully     in spring

     finding that     when this happens                                 hasten the age

                                                                                          of ample

             grass      sings

                  ample    in quivering rain

I love that inclination, or perhaps I should write that ( love that inclination, the small knowledge that declares the world sacred, that calls in our life as local entity, and there—within the intimacies—we find our amplitude.

The Disordered Alphabet by Cintia Santana, Four Way Books (2023)

Amplitude of another sort, a frequency modulation, buzzes through Cintia Santana’s debut collection, The Disordered Alphabet. Santana explores what a poem can be if we take their primary elements as the subject of our deepest experiment—the letters themselves. Far more than merely syllables—though note, syllables range with their wilding precisions throughout the dynamic music of this collection—or phonemes, a letter here is an atom, and a poem nothing less than a physics lab or particle accelerator, trying to spark an idea into a fission, or working to discover the elementary particles. Santana’s takes a Pythagorean approach, letters as little gods rather than that philosopher’s numbers, but the effect is the same—that letters have been witness to the world and its becoming throughout the ages, possessed of knowledge and surmise no single life can gather into itself, save by gathering in the alphabet. So it is that imitation becomes a primary mode of investigation. “D” invokes Emily Dickinson:

I found a Dictionary in my Dream,

A Book so like a Door,

And knocking—knocking—soon I found

Each Word was hardly Worn—

Here is a vision in which poetry’s primary work is to keep language new and ever newer, to condense the poem to a star knot, and know that the mind—as eye does with sun—lives by that light. Sappho is here, and so is Gerard Manley Hopkins, and so is the atomic bomb. As quarks and charms and bosons and neutrinos move through the universe in motions of their own, Santana’s poems behave in a wondrously dizzying array of forms, play that is both deep pleasure and cosmic surprise. The tonal range dances from whimsy to grief, insisting not only that such opposites are tangled one in the other, but contradiction is itself one of the world’s dearest Laws. As is life, as is death, as is desire—as in “Want”:

Mother, I am plowing by moonlight

I am without word or water

The sorrel mare went without fight

Mother, I am plowing by moonlight

In this pigweed world, sown through with flight

What profit from this blood? What daughter?

Mother, I am plowing by moonlight

I am without word or water

I hear the bewildered plaint of being at work in the world, a condition for which there is no explanation. But I hear order of another kind, the loving surety of rhyme—A B A A A B A B—the letters of the alphabet offering their loving, quietly sung lullaby, assuring us the pattern patterns us, even if we do not know it.

About the Reviewer

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator. His most recent books include Arrows, and a collection of ancient Greek lyric poems, Stone-Garland. His work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations, and he teaches at Colorado State University, where he is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar.