Roo Borson’s latest poetry collection begins in Rome with an ekphrastic view of a 2,000-year-old fresco commissioned by Livia, wife of Augustus Caesar. The image symbolizes the thematic question of Borson’s book: in what ways do we paint home? Like many of Borson’s collections, Cardinal in the Eastern White Cedar is infused with the Japanese tradition of imagism regarding form, symbolism, and nature’s seasons.
The first section is a long poem that traipses through Rome while the author finds herself in a nostalgic mood about aging, friendships, and meaning. Its travelogue feel intermingles with high-powered imagery followed by general insight: “The strangest thing about this kind of life / might be its strangeness, which must be taken for granted / in order to live.” I could not help but feel slightly left out of the plot in this first section, as if the insights didn’t fully realize to become anything more than diary-quaint and slightly ho-hum. The poem doesn’t invite intimacy. Fortunately, the section ends here:
let’s leave this place,
and go out again into the daylight with our friends –
while our closest star, the only sun that is
is still shining.
“A Sideways Spring” begins the next section with a more Borson-like poem of interconnected haiku-esque triptychs moving through seasons, which delight and remind me of the poet at her best.
Slumped in a chair with a bowl of cherries
hot July night
nothing on but moonlight
Spider in the teapot
moth in the bedclothes
Line-level musicality continues subtly and attentively in several fugues, including the visitation poem “One.” Borson’s attentiveness to sound is evident, yet at times reads like the work of a much less experienced poet. This happened in the last stanza of “All,” for example: “or to summon to that / sudden sky all of blueness: / your eyes.” Neither the language nor the image becomes a unit of astonishing poetic measure that Borson has shown elsewhere she is capable of.
The same cannot be said for poems such as “Elegy, December” and “Small Horse.” Each of these contains tight refrain, flowing imagery, and surprise, showcasing Borson’s best poetic capabilities:
Small horse amidst the regiments of horses,
soldiers, beings of steel,
mayfly or June bug,
what kind of thing are you,
wearing the colours of July
The third section is best, combining haibun and prose poem to cement the author’s memory and connect to the thematic idea of the way in which home exists in one’s own mind. Borson focuses on specific imagery, ensconcing the reader in experience and exploring the gestalt of memory. This section caps the book with gracious insight and narrative closeness.
Kate Cayley’s anticipated new collection, Other Houses, is slight at 64 pages, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in depth. Cayley handles theme through transformation: the notion of a house takes on many aspects as a malleable metaphor. A house is a pod, a shell, a body, time, and a borderland in which all things – and life itself – are transient: “The house knows you / only in passing, impermanent invader.” In several poems Cayley manages the question, what elevates one to the divine? Antoni Gaudi becomes the Creator in “Antoni Gaudi Looks at a Leaf While Designing the Sagrada Familia,” while a doctor in “Providence” is uncomfortable with the responsibility of life-and-death decisions.
Cayley’s tone becomes ironic and observant in a group of poems titled “A Partial List of People Who Have Claimed to Be Christ.” This set of portrait poems is at once earnest and yet somehow darkly humorous. Their impact illuminates a way of looking and resists poetic cliché. In “Pied Piper: The Children, Leaving, Sing to Their Parents,” Cayley illustrates our human desire for permanence, and the corresponding impermanence of the physical body.
Other Houses weaves a rare complexity of contemplations through metaphor, shape-shifting, and philosophical considerations. Efficiently stated, Cayley’s ideas are wise and well worth a read.