What an exhilarating experience!
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading and rereading Roo Borson’s Rain; road; an open boat, making notes as I go. What a beautiful, challenging book it is! The title of the book is a nesting of the titles of its three sections. Within each section are interlaced poems in verse and prose riffing on landscape, nature, memory and everything else in imagination and out. Many volumes and scholarly careers could be (and, I hope, will be) devoted to teasing out the structure Borson has erected. Here I’ll just take a quick dip into the thunderous waterfall :
Of the opening poem, “Various Landscapes” I wrote in my notes:
What is going on? is this pseudo-Haiku and commentary? Are we seeing the various levels of a I Ching hexagram?
There is certainly a dialogue — or a call and response — between the verses and the prose poetry.
Although the atmosphere seems rural Japanese (or is this my expectation after Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida?) the mention of the sausage shop crashes us into urbanity or at least suburbanity and European bratwurst.
Where is this house: Where the river road meets the coast road. One wall is all windows . . . It is Ossian’s Hall, which closes the book!
The prose poems have become visions, dreams, dream visions. All floral, but cankered. The fantasy guest room has become reality and reality is the vision.
But the Guest House is in China, not Japan.
I couldn’t help but think of my old Bollingen copy of the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching as I red “Various Landscapes”: while an unchanging digram replaces the varied hexagrams, the three line stanzas accompanied by long prose commentaries create something oracular about the appearance of the page. I suspect Borson intends the resemblance.
My perplexity continued with the second poem, “California Nutmeg”:
What to make of this? The place whence her night dreams proceed and around which her mental faculties take shape is where a solitary tree grows out of place in and alien forest.
“and makes itself at home wherever it happens to issue from the earth” as does Borson, I think.
“Wild Violets” (the first of this title, we later find out) at first blush is a pretty study of memory and nostalgia, much like “Radish Flowers” which follows. I thought:
So much seems at first Impressionistic, but there’s sure to be an underlying order with Borson, I think.
Hints of future and signs of past on this day on the cusp of summer
“In the world but not of it.”
“Durham” made me remark that “I must reread Durham in Old English”. A thousand years or so ago, another poet wrote of Durham, a poem both similar to and different from Borson’s. Both are careful to mention the woods and the river, the natural landscape in which Durham is situated. I find it very intriguing that two poets so far apart in time and tradition stood in the same spot and described the same place so similarly. The Old English (with my translation):
Is ðeos burch breome geond Breotenrice,
steppa gestaðolad, stanas ymbutan
wundrum gewæxen. Weor ymbeornad,
ea yðum stronge, and ðer inne wunað
feola fisca kyn on floda gemonge.
And ðær gewexen is wudafæstern micel;
wuniad in ðem wycum wilda deor monige,
in deope dalum deora ungerim.
Is in ðere byri eac bearnum gecyðed
ðe arfesta eadig Cudberch
and ðes clene cyninges heafud,
Osuualdes, Engle leo, and Aidan biscop,
Eadberch and Eadfrið, æðele geferes.
Is ðer inne midd heom æðelwold biscop
and breoma bocera Beda, and Boisil abbot,
ðe clene Cudberte on gecheðe
lerde lustum, and he his lara wel genom.
Eardiæð æt ðem eadige in in ðem minstre
ðær monia wundrum gewurðað, ðes ðe writ seggeð,
midd ðene drihnes wer domes bideð.
Fully known is this town
throughout the British realm
Steeply established, stones round about
grown up wondrously
A river strongly runs past weirs
in waves, and therein dwell
many fishes in the flood
and there is growing near
a woody fastness great. There live
full many wild beasts
in that dwelling, in deep dales
In that town, too, known to men
they’ll find, most full of grace
the Saint Cuthbert and the head
of the chaste King Oswald
England’s lion; Bishop Aidan;
noble travel partners
Eadberh and Eadfrith.
is there with them and the well known
Bede the scholarly
and Abbot Boisil gladly taught
in youth the chaste Cuthbert:
and well he took his learning up.
Unnumbered relics lie
beside the saint inside the minster
there many wonders come,
as books make known, the while that man
of God for judgment waits.
Borson mentions the blackbird’s song and relates it to an old song of a blackbird. What is this old song? Is it the Beatles song or is it something other?
“A Place in the Woods” is a brief prose poem describing disappointed hopes made manifest, but hints that the manifestation will be swallowed by the silent past.
“Wild Violets” (2) brings Rain to a close with a recasting of the first “Wild Violets” and the clear indication that interlace is going to be a primary structural principle of the book.
Of particular note in the recasting: after fifty years old papers dog-eared have replaced the wild violets.
“Late Sunshine” begins the second section with a quite lengthy return to the pseudo-haiku and prose response. In my notes I recast the poem, quoting the brief verse bits and reducing the prose paragraphs to bullet points:
A riff on Borson’s “Late Sunshine”
the blossoming oats –”
The turtle and his eye
Entries on dead people on the internet
The fish laid out side by side.
“The world in old photos
or the world in spring –
which is younger?”
The masks and the borrowed instruments
Smells and things
Gifts and judgement thereof
False named plants
Dead honey eater’s eye
The cats in the tree
The shock of the familiar
Three questions as we die
The moth on the sidewalk after rain
The arrival of the future
The dazzling become familiar
The Kingfisher necklace
Remembering birth and death.
“The delicate scent of bottle-gourd blossoms
the wisteria beans long and glat
the repetative songs of the birds of early summer”
do memories return to us or we to them?
embroidered on a pillow
the name game
the other name game
“Standing on the right foot
lifting pine seeds with the left –
a third name game
narrow minds and broad
“A magpie lark
standing guard over the waterfall
water gliding past its feet –”
the inverse law of death and intentions
pigeons in the train station in prose and verse
the face in the mirror
buildings and art
White Duck Narrows
In “Blowing Clouds” Borson shows she loves to juggle words and syntax and punctuation. This is a virtuoso juggle!
(with prose commentary.)
My notes on the last poems of Rain; road;:
Verse then prose
Memory of time with friends long later when one friend has died.
prose and then verse
echoes of all that’s gone before.
“Roads in the Berkeley Hills”
verse then prose
the thing, which no longer exists except in memory, exists still in you, in us (in we?).
The final section Rain: road; an open boat begins with “New Rain” another extended verse/prose call and response. Again my notes are bullet point paraphrase:
prose then verse and so on
something white in the Japanese rain
the rain pavilion
Something strange on the mountainside
the bus to a temple and the driver identifies the animal
statues and castle
the tooth-regrowing temple
the tour guide
Hakuin’s sermon (this stanza, describing Hakuin’s untranslated ten word sermon, is ten words long)
Journeying to Japan
tend days of rain and snow
Kyoto and Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Colour and cold noodles
Subtracting the self
the person I’ve never met
whose ghost is this
longing to be like others
The Gardens of Kyoto
the lost hat
The crow calls out to the friend with his recovered hat.
among the pines.
My notes on the last four poems:
The road to locally ignored grave of a poet
The prose is explanation.
I find myself wondering at this point whether the prose explanation is advantagious or detrimental to the poetry.
“A Chaise for Sharon”
“To go to Huangshan”
Prose about Huangshan
the identical tourist raincoats at first are (intentionally) absurd but by the end are jewels of perseverance.
The blackbird in a filigree of images high on Bucks Hill
“and the robin
small beneath the hedge”
“all the tropes spent”
This is Durham again.
I have a suspicion Borson has not spent all her tropes.
The book closes with an “Afterword and a Note” concerning the eighteenth century Scottish folly called “Ossian’s Hall” and then a poem, “Ossian’s Folly, Black Linn Falls” about Borson’s visit to that place. Here we are returned to the guest house of “Various Landscapes” with it’s wall of windows and the river outside.
Rain; road; an open boat is a densely structured beautiful interlacing of images across all the poems, a seductive mesh drawing us to it over and over again, a braided woodland waterfall, calling to us with voices of memory and hopes and dreams.
“Enter it said the river’s falling
enter it and entered instead its thunderous names.”