Book Review

Raphael Block’s new collection, The Dreams We Share, is a work of sustained and reverent attention to the natural world. The poet’s fifth book, it contains eighty-nine poems in five sections, and names over a hundred different plants and nearly as many species of birds, animals, and insects. This abundance might suggest the volume reads like a life list, but Block’s language is plush, his approach that of a pilgrim rather than a collector. He is notably faithful to place. Each redwood tree, fence lizard, and redtail hawk populates the lines as naturally as it would its native habitat.

The setting for these poems is predominantly Sonoma County, California. The towhees skipping or scratching “among the lost year’s leaves,” are those of Sebastopol, and when the poet stands on huge boulders in “Rocks Overlooking Tomales Bay,” it is where “the Miwok gathered to mash acorns / and make ceremony.” Block also visits the “uncharted territory” of his boyhood: his first film at the local grocers (Abbot and Costello), views of north London, and a glimpse of an Egyptian battleship being attacked in Haifa. Poems move from creek to aquifer to a hospital in San Francisco full of employees who themselves hail from all over the world, and the final piece mentions sites as widespread as Glastonbury, Machu Picchu, Mecca, Uluru, Kyoto and Srinagar. However, it is to the oak-studded hills and windy coasts near his home that Block repeatedly returns.

The Dreams We Share is largely free verse, often in trimeter or tetrameter with plentiful assonance. Block learned to read and write English as an older child. He has an ear for language as well as an aptitude for rhythm. He often presents his work with musical accompaniment, and his poetry has been choreographed for dancers and performed by choirs. Music is a recurring motif in the book and can be heard in the meter and sound of the pieces themselves. From “Leap”:

Heart chambers carved

by cataracts of blood—

all my wounds’ aches—

these were always yours.

Block employs a broad lens to show a personal connection with great phenomena: the sea and moon, thunder, ice, fire, the stars and constellations. But the book is dedicated to the feminine Gaia, and the poet expresses his empathy for her smallest creatures. In “A Fly,” he writes, “I travel briefly, too / in this hour of glass.” He focuses on myriad details: spider webs, flower petals, the stamen of the calla lily. In “During the Drought” he notes, “Fine silvery-white / hairs and creases on lamb’s ears / stand out like copper-plate engravings.”

The shape of the poems indicates attention to craft, frequently complimenting the subject matter. Words move like dance steps or cascade like waterfalls down the page. “Oak Sky,” “Ocean,” and “The Whale’s Song” have staggered and indented lines to reflect their titles. Space around and within other pieces provides room for breath and directs the eye and mind to pause momentarily or accelerate according to content.

While some poems are short observations of the natural world, the voice in this book is more Rumi than Bashō. All the senses are engaged, especially when Block combines nature and food. “Vessel” depicts the smell of honeysuckle and the call of mockingbird and acorn woodpecker while a woman mixes yogurt with plum, blackberries, and “pale moon peach slices.” “Homegrown” describes a scene of meditative salad making: grinding fresh seasoning with mortar and pestle, pausing to “revel in the fog flooding the hills, the bowing trees,” and appreciate the “deep aroma and color of turmeric, / the silences between the branches.”

The Dreams We Share benefits from Block’s imagery and imagination. “Blasts and gusts keep pushing me aside / to be a pencil in the wind’s mouth,” he tells us in “In the Mouth of the Wind.” “Ode to Ocean Fog” begins with the evocative lines:

We have no mouth–we are all openings

each pore welcoming molecules

of delicious moisture that trickles through

our capillaries, down our stems and trunks.

While devout gratitude for nature is evident throughout The Dreams We Share, this is not a collection of eco-praise poems that simply tells us the world is beautiful, gushing without offering anything substantial. Raphael Block’s biography includes significant bereavement as well as life-threatening illness, and his focus on impermanence and appreciation for the Earth are informed by his experiences. In a National Geographic short film, he says, “Facing death and loss are kind of preliminary qualifications for writing poetry, in my case.” Thus, we see through the lens of someone whose celebration is tempered with humility and introspection. The many poems that show Block’s vulnerability and compassion do so without self-pity or self-promotion, and as a result, they provide an architecture of credibility that supports his more vaulted exaltation.

Block’s gently candid history often appears in snapshots, like the sudden reference to a dying brother in a poem ostensibly about ravens. But there are more cinematic memories as well, such as “The Day She Passed,” which describes the poet’s impulsive visit to the beach with his daughter shortly after his wife dies. The poem avoids sentimentality through its straightforward narrative, and we see the haunting and bittersweet moment when the young girl says, “I want to be buried. / Dig a hole for me!” and the father replies, “I’ll cover you only if you’ll get yourself out.

In the same way that Raphael Block faces his own adversities directly, the final section of his book tackles subjects such as the wildfires that devasted much of Sonoma County and the horror of gun violence and mass shootings in schools. This section also includes a poem titled “Antidote to the News,” and The Dreams We Share itself can be read as both an antidote to cynicism and hopelessness and a call to action for the poet and his readers. “I pray for my heart / to be set ablaze,” Block says in “Ablaze.” In “The Combination,” he tells us, “All depends on your loving witness,” and “You are the key to this universe. / Now how will you be?”  After reading this new collection, one might find it difficult to be anything but aware of the beauty and fragility of life, ready to heed the poet’s admonition from “Thistledown”: “don’t let this world / escape you.”

About the Reviewer

Rebecca Patrascu’s poetry and reviews have appeared in publications including The Adroit Journal, Pedestal Magazine, The Shore, The Midwest Quarterly, The Racket Journal, Pidgeonholes, Bracken Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, and Valparaiso Review. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and is the author of the chapbook Before Noon.