Thomas Gannon Hamilton’s PANOPTIC reviewed by John B. Lee

Thomas Gannon Hamilton, Panoptic, Aeolus House, 2018, 110 pp.      I.S.B.N. 978-1-987872-13-2

… which brings me to your assignment …

“Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes.

                 The optic heart must venture: a jailbreak

                 and recreation.”      

~ lines from Margaret Avison’s sonnet “Snow”

 Every book is an artifact, a technology, a delivery system for the work to be found within the covers, and as such first impressions involve an apprehension of and appreciation for those qualities that are particular to the publisher’s attention to presentation. In the case of Aeolus House and Thomas Gannon Hamilton’s book Panoptic the poems within are honoured by the beauty and clarity of production. The cover stock, the paper, and the legible font all contribute to the dignity that these fine poems deserve. The illustrations throughout compliment the poetry. The cover illustration by Hamilton, with its use of Feng Shui, its complimentary combination of water, flora, fauna, and architecture, and its rainbow-colouring of feminine and masculine human figures provides an introduction to the themes we will find within. The opening pen and ink illustration of a swallowtail imago, followed within the book by equally lovely images of catfish swimming tail to tail, and what appear to be mandalas of wheat woven within and emerging from the corolla of a paper flower in combination with Hamilton’s opening epigram “This garden blooms in Fall” combine to prepare us for the delights that will follow when we begin to read. And I can tell you without equivocation that Hamilton does not disappoint. His work is complex without being needlessly obscure, deeply engaged with the world he inhabits and profoundly erudite without being arrogant. The reader lingers, turns a phrase every which-a-way under the light of understanding, sustained by the music that serves the theme, and then is rewarded if not always emerging from the experience unscathed.

It’s a long book, packed with long-line poems, many of which are two to three pages in length, so I’ll concentrate my attention in this review on four poems – the opening poem, the closing poem, the eponymous-to-the-title-of-the-book poem, and the poem that made me laugh out loud so often that I read it and re-read it to amuse my silly self. But then I once coined the question, “What’s the difference between being Solomon, and being Sirius?” so you might forgive my deep appreciation of the truly funniest poem in the book.

The opening poem “Caul” and the closing poem “Mount Pleasant” provide us with something of a framing device in that “Caul” deals with birth and “Mount Pleasant” an apt coda, is a seven-verse contemplation of death and mortality. The alpha poem, rather than being metaphysical is an odd poem concerning a baby born “fully enrobed” in the amniotic sac, a one in eighty thousand rarity. I’m reminded of the star child in Kubrick’s film 2001 when Hamilton compares his own christening to “the first cosmonaut who left earth,/ well in advance of his lift off,/ prior to his re-entry and splash down,/ I had already made my entrance.” The originality of Hamilton’s perceptions and the quirkiness of sensibility enrich the reader’s experience throughout this volume.

In his closing poem he writes: “When you are little you learn to classify/ the living and make distinctions/ between those you’ve seen die;” and you’ve journeyed here if you read this book from front to back, by way of an intelligence that is restless and never satisfied with the obvious surfaces of life. The range and depth of this poet’s concerns remind the reader of the importance of both breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding. He becomes something of a reliable guide directing our attention and illuminating what we see. And what we experience is sometimes achingly sad as he writes of the “untimely death of a lover, best friend,/ husband, wife or someone you love/ no less;” and the journey through grief is equal to the music of Orpheus and his doomed beloved Eurydice. The pain is almost too much to bear. Like Hamlet contemplating Yorick, we are brought to the edge of the grave to think upon “…this ultimate/ enterprise, each holds an equal share,/ all have a common stake; yet/ you distinguish, still you compare.” And I note the way that word ‘yet’ lingers at the line’s end before tumbling to ‘you distinguish,’ and the final words of the closing poem ‘still you compare.’   And is that not the poet’s lot? To compare, to seek a metaphor for the strangest and most mysterious of all experiences – our own mortality. We are born only to die. This need not be morbid or ghoulish contemplation. Like the gravedigger’s comic relief, there are lines in this poem that elicit a smile as it is with the punning of “the grave differences,” leading to a list ‘junior and gramps,/ magnate, minion, maven, twit” and so on. The wit in these lines does not go unnoticed. And the rhyming of “twit” with the phrase “pulses quit,” disallows the reader from descending into a dark mood commensurate with the overplaying of morbidity.

In the title poem, “Panoptic” I am reminded of Avison’s importuning of the reader to fully engage the world in her sonnet “Snow.” The idea that in order to understand and appreciate experience, the individual must engage in active cognition, “Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes,” she writes, and Hamilton’s opening salvo in his poem “Diminished as I am in your ears,/ I cannot get between them,/ enter and leave without a hearing,/ the way rodents and roaches cross/ more freely than thoughts,/ from one cell to another.” The word ‘panoptic’ is all by itself an invitation to engage. And the poem ends with an echo reference “Though diminished in your eyes,” as the opening line in the last verse. Understanding these lines is not easy work, but wrestling with them is damned rewarding play. Like Avison, Hamilton rewards reading and rereading. The music sustains and the effort rewards.

And then there’s the quirky “Home Ec.” A poem in which the speaker is a teacher and the reader is privy to the reactions of an imaginary class wherein we are invited to contemplate the joy of cooking squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, opossums, beavers, raccoons, bears, and finally humans. And the teacher chastises the imaginary class, like that in Monty Python’s sex education class in their film The Meaning of Life. To give but one example: “Seminoles who tasted settlers, runaway slaves/ and their own, reported some differences;/ alright, that’s enough, go stand in the hall.” (Ialics are mine). The poem ends with “and now for your assignment,” and so I end this review by suggesting to the reader of this review “and now for your assignment” read Panoptic and then see me after class. To order your copy, send $24 ($20 + $4 p&h) payable To Tom Gannon Hamilton, 577 O’Connor Dr., Toronto, Ontario, M4C 2Z9.



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Luciano Iacobelli’s DOLOR MIDNIGHT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Luciano Iacobelli, Dolor Midnight. Quattro Books.  84pp. $20.00

There is a poetry in gambling and Luciano Iacobelli has written an important book about it. As a child watching the neighbourhood men play dice in the streets, he felt “the poetry crawled across our young souls….” Like poetry, gambling is an art. The energy of gambling inflames Iacobelli’s language to a high level of poetic speech. ” I come to practice my art…/so that when death arrives/ it’s features will be known.” Iacobelli is a kind of Canadian François Villon who finds glory in his vice: “…it’s always my falls that summon miracles/draw up enough compassion and grace/to bring forth angels.”

Dolor Midnight is a rich tapestry of stories: portraits of gamblers, anecdotes of addiction. Iacobelli is honest about his own addiction: “take a 16 hour bus ride to New Jersey…/play 3 or 4 hours just to quell the fever/then return home to be back in Toronto by Monday morning/in time to teach my first class.” In the seven sections of the book, Iacobelli writes fascinating poems about the history of cards, dice, horse-racing, casinos, the habits of gamblers, and he reflects brilliantly on the kind of things that go through the mind of a player : “How many birds will land on a branch”; “some say luck can be trained/ you can whistle and it comes.” His speculations rise up from philosophy to religion: “what counted was how nothing became something/how a fish and a loaf/multiply into/ feast.”

Iacobelli’s wit churns out surprising one-liners: debt is “a sea weighed down/ by its own salt”; nostalgia is “hope walking backwards.” These are very satisfying to read. But, at the heart of his book, is Iacobelli’s effort to articulate why the gambler is driven to take risks after losing. He asks whether it is a “genetic disposition…/or chemical wave washing the brain”? If so, is gambling a vice or a disease? He doesn’t settle on either of these alternatives. Rather, he moves the issue to the spiritual level: taking a gamble is “an attempt to outrun the weight/return to the original lightness.” If that is the case, who can point the finger at “tossing dice for the last time/ a sick old yellow man wears an oxygen mask/ and who is to blame him….” Iacobelli’s art is both ruthless and compassionate. If I had to choose a single word to describe the poetry of Dolor Midnight, that word would be ‘redemptive.’


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Valentino Assenza’s THROUGH PAINTED EYES reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Valentino Assenza, Through Painted Eyes, Piquant Press, $19.95

Here are some admirable lines from Through Painted Eyes, Valentino Assenza’s first full-length collection of poems: “that precious/subliminal taste/of the past through/my senses.” These lines say that though his form resembles chopped prose, the lines are in fact made up of ‘spoken word’ held together by the real voice of a sensitive personality. Assenza’s memories come through his senses, and this conveys the livingness of the episodes and characters making up his personal epic journey into the past. Whether he is chronicling growing up with his mother in Toronto neighbourhoods, or among relatives in Sicily where he spent summers with his father, Assenza’s memories carry with them a sense of life: “my father peeling/me a cucumber from/the garden,/ and a lizard/crawling across a stone wall.”

Through Painted Eyes contains a gallery of portraits, notably Assenza’s father, grandfather, relatives and neighbourhood characters drawn so you get what these people meant to him, and still mean. The portrait of Jack the barber and his ‘victims’ is touching and deft, conveying a sense of neighbourhood life in the class of Laurence Hutchman’s Two Maps of Emery, and that is makes me think somebody should appoint Assenza poet laureate of a Toronto neighbourhood, perhaps Leslieville.

Whether he writes about life in Sicily or in Toronto, many of Assenza’s spoken words are in the Sicilian dialect, and he scatters phrases throughout these poems, where they function like charms and spells and incantations summoning up a richness in the mouth that is one of the more rewarding effects of reading his work, all the more so if you’ve had a chance to hear him read. “The Tobacconist” is one of his best in performance, where you also get a strong sense of how at ease the author in his world where he is happy to fit in. There are dark touches in the poems due to separation, death, and failure of ambition, but  remarkably, there is not a trace of alienation in Through Painted Eyes.



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Tom Hamilton’s EL MARILLO reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

El Marillo is an elegaic work of great passion focused on Hamilton’s late wife, Rhena Hymovitch, and her humanitarian passion to bring ‘boots-on-the-ground’ aid, relief and protection to thousands of displaced ‘campesinos’ during the 1980’s in El Salvador where she lost her life.

El Marillo  commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of her death with poems that record the brutal conditions she and Hamilton worked under from 1984-88 when Hymovitch drowned. The book concludes with a handful of poems in which Hamilton reflects how the passing years have been marked by his devotion to his late wife’s memory.

Hamilton’s verse forms are, as he says, “a consequence of extreme lived experience matched with a poet’s imperative to give it voice.” His lines are filled with facts: “penecillin, amoxocylin, tetracycline, Imodium, with no expiry date/ later than ours we hope….” They also record actions: “…finally we sneak under the bridge turret and sleeping/ machine-gunner as we cross Rio Lempa, then traverse the playa seca,/ to the pueblo, El Marillo, with our forbidden medicinal cargo.”

The thought lines run in long  narrative and discursive stanzas sometimes marked by a complexity of rhythm, a loftiness of diction, and a profundity of thought that blossoms into a more traditional mode of poetry:

“Terror is to the survivor what valor is to the warrior: a priest;                                         consider the multi-faith corpses whose myriad beliefs                                                               had this covered; a mystery who will get it;                                                                               humor is their talisman, any swatch in a field….”

Hamilton’s verse often rises to an eloquence that extends to the limits of speech in lines like ” No hand/ is big enough to cover the river’s bloody mouth…” and, “oblivion/ pure, unmitigated nothingness compels him to pray.” The latter line is from the closing poem of the book. Entitled “Susto,” it serves as the concluding portion of Hamilton’s elegy or lament for the dead, in which, traditionally, the grieving poet reconciles himself to the loss and experiences a realization that allows him to let go. Through the closing lines of the poem, in the formal elegaic manner, the poet uses his ‘susto’, the illness of his grieving, to liberate both the memory of his beloved and himself: “yet, with susto./ you take up and face what you’ve long been seeking/to exorcise: the dread you must embrace to extinguish.”

Tom Hamilton’s chapbook is so personal and so intense, I have to let go of some lines that leave me in the dark, even after several readings. It is possible their darkness forms a part of Hamilton’s intention, as he seems to indicate in the closing lines of this remarkable poem: “bituminous train cars,/ their tomorrows trail off; each day/to follow they ‘ll see me, not whole, but if not for the darkness, they wouldn’t see me at all and they wouldn’t know.”

El Marillo won 1st place in the 2018 Big Pond Rumours Chapbook Awards. I say it possesses the ‘gravitas’ to earn a permanent place in the archives of this country and beyond.



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Penn Kemp’s FOX HAUNTS Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Penn Kemp. Fox Haunts. Aeolus House, 2018. 97 pp.

The way suburban garden fences are a line the fox crosses from the countryside to steal our chickens, is like the line fox, since time immemorial, has crossed from the countryside into our myths, into our dreams, into our literature and our language. Shenanigans is derived from the Gaelic word for fox. A skulk of foxes is the collective noun. Jimmie Hendrix sang of his “Foxy Lady.” And here is a stanza from Penn Kemp’s poem to Inari, the Shinto fox-god deity:


Fox girls dance beneath the twisted maple

caling their sister to tranform from mist

as beguiling women with red in their hair.


Fox Haunts is a meditation in 90 poems on a predator who is our closest neighbour and who is getting closer all the time as it’s habitat yields to subdivisions. The longest section of Fox Haunts, entitled “Urban Fox,” consists of poems about foxes Kemp might have encountered: her writing can be elegant.


It’s true you walk on toes like cats

like a ballerina of the wildwood.


Kemp empathizes with the drama of the hunt, the inside as well as the outside of it.


Fox circles her prey, closing in

on her victim in ever tightening

gyres. Her fixed glare freezes


poor rabbit into terror so pure it

dissolves to acceptance, suspended

acquiescence, adrenalin overload.


Almost like peace. Soft as comfort,

this compliance in the fox’s grasp.

Just a single shriek before the


neck snaps.


At her best, Kemp’s narrative and poetry are transparent. She has variance in her voice: sometimes she addresses her images directly to the fox:” I come upon your prints on/muddy path, neatly, deliberately splayed.” Sometimes, she drops into a journalistic mode and addresses the reader directly in what sounds to me like chopped prose: “Like Canada Geese, Fox may/be adopting city life to avoid/ hunters, the tough slog of/country life. Clever fellow.” Only to follow that with a passage of the most startlingly direct poetry:


They look upon the easy prey of pets, soft

and vulnerable bichon frisés left outside

by themselves in the yard, those with no

defense but a petulant, startled bark —


before they are meat, carried off dangling

in the soft jaw of a mother triumphantly keen

on feeding her kits.


Kemp is ‘entranced’ with the world of “Wily wiry trickster tales,” and devotes a section to ‘Fox’ references in the writings of Taliesin, Ovid, in the legend of Samson, in other Hebrew Scriptures relating to Solomon and Ezekiel, in Aesop, W.B Yeats and St. Exupéry, Akiro Kurosawa and Alice Munro whose father raised foxes for fur on a farm where he also kept ” Old horses in the barn waiting/their turn to be fed, to be feed.” As for the night sky, Kemp puts fox in the constellation Canis Major and Canis Minor, This bit of Fox arcana brings into close focus the mythical resonance of that beast in the human imagination.


After having the pleasure of reading Fox Haunts, and of writing down these few thoughts, I look forward to more hours with the book, looking into the stories behind lines like:


Fetch Laelaps, a bitch commanded to catch all

she chases. Let her seize that Teumessian fox!





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THE HEART OF ALL MUSIC reviewed by Sharon Goodier

The Heart of All Music: Poems about Music and Musicians, by Stanley Fefferman, Aeolus House, 2018. 52 pages.

Fefferman’s poetry is a phenomenal verbal symphony of sound, lyricism, imagery, rhythm and reason. A former critic, he knows music with the intimacy of a lover.

It is possible to appreciate The Heart of All Music without being familiar with the music pieces that inspire his verses because Fefferman’s themes, like those of Berg’s Piano Sonata #1 are worked “in a grand architecture” that becomes an open house invitation to the palace of music. His experience of the music becomes ours as he describes “the buzz of an autumn fly/dying over piano keys”, “A conversation between agonized strings”, John Hammond “driving a cargo of blues down the road/like a runaway mule train”. Nowhere does Fefferman allow his poems to become runaways. His talent is like a scalpel, leaving no fat, nicking no bones, no blood suppurating from a badly closed stanza. Fefferman’s poems takes us on a journey from the “querulous conversations” of Schuloff, to Bartok’s “sadness so tender,” to Brahm’s “golden lightning of imagination,” and music that is “a look into the face of suffering/for reasons to sing as long as there is life”

I was inspired to googled as much of this music as I could find online, but that is not necessary in order to read this book. Fefferman’s poetry is music to the inner ear in the brain’s poetry centre which then stimulates the production of serotonin making you feel good in a way that plain prose does not. Even his prose poetry tickles the receptors in the brain because these poems are lyrical, rhythmic and full of images, visual, aural, tactile and the metaphors are concrete. Imagery and metaphor are processed in the poetry centre of the brain.

I long for “the gesture of mind veering along the edge of an emotional cliff” in my own poetry but I am too much of a thinker, not enough of a feeler. Fefferman is both, allowing us to surf with him on feelings finally landing on the white sand of reason. Like the music he loves, his poems “replay themselves in the mind/long after the instruments are silent”. The Heart of All Music:Poems about Music and Musicians is a masterpiece.

The Heart of All Music: Poems about Music and Musicians, by Stanley Fefferman, Aeolus House, 2018. 52 pages. $20, Buy it on,, Quattro

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Phish, Baker’s Dozen, New York City, Madison Square Garden, 2017-07-30, Photos © Eric Fefferman

This gallery contains 11 photos.

MADISON SQUARE GARDEN New York , NY SET 1: The Curtain With > Runaway Jim, Waking Up Dead, Esther, Home, Brian and Robert, Nellie Kane, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird > David Bowie SET 2: Drowned > A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing , Harpua > Also Sprach Zarathustra[1] > Golgi Apparatus, In The Good Old Summer Time ENCORE: The Wind Cries Mary[2] … Continue reading

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A light veil covers the hair and forehead of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That veil is the organizing image of Roark’s book Mona Lisa’s Veil:New and Selected Poems (1979-2001) where he reflects on ‘the beautiful’ in his life and in his experience of art.

As the painted form of the Mona Lisa reveals her beauty, it famously veils her state of mind. It can be normal in poetry to find the language that gives us beautiful forms, also veils our efforts to ‘know’ our experience of those forms. Keats expressed the problem in his Ode to a Grecian Urn: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/As doth eternity….” Here, from Roark’s book, is, a ‘silent form’ that teases me out of thought.


Silence is the weight of wool

on your shoulders, the damp

frost melting on your sleeves,

a deserted backroad under elms

that brush against each other and

whisper, until suddenly the moon

opens over an orchard and

two distant starlings,

wings almost touching,

dip into the field.


The luminous flow of images almost yields the meaning in the whisper of elms “that brush against each other,” or in the way the distant starling’s wings almost touch. The images render the meanings tangible: we can ‘hear’ the whisper, we can feel the wings touch, in our imagination, but what they signify remains veiled.

The rich flow of Roark’s book reflects a poet’s pilgrimage: the roads he’s travelled, women he’s loved, poets he’s befriended, masters he has written ‘after’, paintings he’s examined, music he’s absorbed, authors he’s read. Some elements of the poems, as we saw, are veiled. Some of the poems are so transparent to me, I feel as if it they came from my own mind, or wish they did, such as these poignant lines on a late autumn night sky:

and I saw a comet, red and

trembling, perish like a rose

gleaming into jet,

so young and sad already

and heaven knows

sweet and blank as they say,

like a night when no stars shine—

emeralds her eyes, and the fragrance

of her gown as it fell

made a circle of light

beneath us, glistening like

a thousand tiny violets.



What to make of the four-part title-poem?

In the first part, Roark seems to be mulling over personal questions accumulated from histories of the work and lives of sixty-nine artists— famous painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, architects. ” Why can I never remember it’s the Venus of Willendorf…? Will I forget what the shoes mean/in the ‘Arnolfi Wedding’ or the/ dog?…Why am I drawn to Massacio…?and couldn’t care less about Rubens?”

His inquiry expands through anecdotal reminiscences of little-known information about these famous names such as: “Watteau died in the arms of his dealer”; “Monet lived only because Renoir brought bread to his table”;

For “Death of a Virgin” Caravaggio

used the bloated body of a drowned corpse.

Joshua Reynolds went deaf in the Vatican’s cold rooms

sketching Raphaels,

painted himself in Rembrandt’s clothes.

The tone is monologue, the lines arranged on the page in verse form and stanzaed. This method lifts each ‘moment’ devoted to an artist out of art history and frames the aphorisms as cameo’s in Roark’s gallery—“Renoir painted with his penis” In the cases of Turner of Van Gogh and others, Roark’s meditations are extended in portraits that are ‘character pieces,’ filling a dozen lines or more. The poetry of Roark’s gallery manifests like echoes from his opening questions, often bringing into perspective each artist’s ‘Ruling Passion’. Turner: “To be poetic it is necessary to be incomphrehensible.” Degas:” Women in general are ugly.” “Decomposition excited Rosso/ lived with a baboon, dug up corpses….” “Delacroix always ran a small fever.” Rodin:”… his secret law was incompletion.” From Matthew Brady who documented the American Civil War and died penniless, Roark gives us his reason for going to the war: “A spirit in my feet said go, and I went.” Van Gogh:”What I am doing is not by accident.” Gericault “studied lunatics in an asylum.” “As for Camille Claudel/ committed to an asylum her final forty years/”the gold she mined was her own.” Each of these observations suggests an equation that defines the subject artist’s work.

In the first part of “Mona Lisa’s Veil,” Roark has curated an exhibition of pictures that behave, generally, like icons: they point to a bigger vision—a mystery we can glimpse through their agency, as the mystery of the feminine is veiled/unveiled by the Venus of Willendorf, or as the mystery of human community emerges from the winter fog that slightly obscures the scene of Brueghel’s “Hunters in the the Snow.” The key to Roark’s ‘icons’ is the notion that appearances in life as well as in art arise out of a mutual interdependency. As the transparency of the veil and the ‘chignon’ appearance of La Giaconda’s hairdo are interdependent, so the lives of Monet and Renoir, or Watteau dead and his dealer’s arms are interdependent. A better word than ‘interdependent’ would be ‘co-emergent’, which carries the sense of ‘non-duality’, or ‘not-two’. An example would be the Morning Star and the Evening Star that appear in the sky as two different bodies. Despite the difference in their way of appearing, they are the same body: they are ‘not-two.’

“Mona Lisa’s Veil” part II takes a surrealistic dive into “mental patients and criminals—“, tracks tragic anecdotes like that Jackson Pollock “attacked a piano with an ice-pick”; that Maxim Gorky “Losing his wife, his health and his work in a fire, / Gorky hung himself in a woodshed”; and Adolf Wofli, imprisoned for much of his life as a psychotic criminal, who produced paintings and music in his asylum that Andre Breton described as “one of the three or four most important oeuvres of the twentieth century.” The drift of these stanzas outlines the breakdown of interdependence between the artist and the world, the art and the viewer, as they were in the time of Brueghel’s “Hunters in the the Snow.” Signs of the breakdown are the withdrawal of 20th Century art into extremes of iconoclasm (Wolfli) and formalism (Pollock, Mondrian). This section of the poem concludes with Roark’s observation that in the last century, “because the world mourns—” the “handwriting of the painter” is replaced by “multicolored canals of color,”

oscillating chevron designs and the incest of studio life

where the savage was chic.

In Part III, Roark continues tracking the union of abstract art and concrete jungle as he traces the drift of the ‘Style Moderne’ into the “grid and glass,”— the “blocky right angles” of 20th Century architecture. His morbid view extends into Part IV, where the horrors of Holocaust are seen disguised as “acrylic Dick Tracys,” and where “Donald Judd got rid of any emotion.” “Roark allows “Mona Lisa’s Veil” to wind down with a backward glance in the direction of the anonymous artists of the Venus of Willendorf, the cave-paintings of Lascaux, the Parthenon, and the Egyptian pyramids. His poem that began with questions about an earlier phase of Western Art ends by looking back to pre-historical art for encouragement in deciphering the enigma of abstract art in our time:

Champollion deciphering hieroglyphics and

Carter uncovering Tutankhamen—[i]


This book offers sequences of poems Roark wrote ‘AFTER’ poets like Louis Aragon, Federico Garcia Lorca, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, and Li Po. He includes other ‘named’ poems, ones paying homage to Henry James, the Marquis de Sade, John Milton, Ezra Pound, Hieronymous Bosch and his friend Tai Chi master Jane Faigao. Other titles include the names of Jim Cohn (a fellow poet at the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics), and other poets and artists in Roark’s ‘Kerouac School’ circle–Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Andy Hoffman, Stan Brakhage, Darrin Daniel, J. Gluckstern, Crystal Brakhage.

The catalogue of these names reminds me how the life-blood of Roark’s writing circulates through a symbiotic network of the people he names. There is a sweet lyricism in the presence of this element of names remembered. Even as titles in the Table of Contents of Mona Lisa’s Veil, these names, —“some are dead and some are living”— bring a whiff of wistful fellowship redolent of Paul McCartney’s “Penny Lane,” and John Lennon’s “In My Life.”

However, we are not talking about nostalgia here, unless we mean by it something like the homing instinct of sea turtles or salmon. And if we are talking about nostalgia here, it is in the manner of the gypsy wanderer Melquíades of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, who learns that nostalgia is a force that has a life of its own, one that has overcome in him the “the solitude of death.” Would it be an exaggeration? to suggest that as Melquíades has the power to cure the insomnia of his audience in the town of Macondo and bring them into ‘irreversible history,’ Roark’s poems secure for his readers hand and footholds in the disconcerting rockface of our common time. For this view to hold, one needn’t agree with his opinions. For instance, he writes:

When Ansel Adams was twelve

he brought a Brownie box camera

into Yosemite Valley

and never got bored—

what one feels with Steiglitz,

Weston, or Strand.

Ansel’s vision is consistent, I agree. But Steiglitz on Manhattan or Georgia O’Keefe are not boring to me. Weston’s “Pepper No. 30” has Rodin muscles. Paul Strand’s “Powerhouse Mechanic Working on Steam Pump” is a nobler work than Chaplin’s Modern Times. Bored with their art I am not. But so what? I am happy to listen as Roark has his say because what I hear is a writer in tune with himself. Because Roark agrees with himself, in disagreeing with him, I agree with myself, and that too is very agreeable. But I have strayed from the ‘AFTER’ poems themselves.

“Dramones (After Federico Garcia Lorca)” is convincing Lorca. I am reminded of what Leonard Cohen said about Lorca in his speech accepting the Prince of Asturias Award for literature:

I studied the English poets and I knew their work well…, but I could not find a voice. It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. [He] gave me permission to find a voice… that struggles for its own existence.

In “Dramones (After Federico Garcia Lorca)”, Roark has a voice—however there is no struggle in it—only surrender:

Under a dark persimmon sky,

in a field of Persian Jasmine,

she ran her hands over my

chest with fists full of cinnamon,

her fingers wet with honey in my mouth.

Leonard Cohen, even in the best work of his youth could not surpass these lines. Further into this remarkable poem is a description, uncanny for being accurate in every detail, about an experience I myself self had one psychedelic night:

…like the mind’s

eye in nightmares

when you’re at the wheel and

the road’s black corduroy

ripples like a whip,

flashing in the black

cold shower of the stars,

vague yellow petals

drifting in the breeze

like constellations in a haze

and the sightless nightingales

and the blue light of innumerable shapes

and dry monotonous greys are

almost scultpural in the dark….

Continuing to report from personal reactions, I wonder that across a gap of forty years, Coleridge’s companionable moons in his poems “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection and Ode” are perfectly recalled to me by Roark’s poem “The Briarwood (After S. T. Coleridge),” where, in the company of a dear one, he captures moonlight for a lover:

–like when we were in the parlor,

and the moon enveloped you—

the room’s dark shadows blackening the

light, the withered leaves

a deeper yellow, the sky flat

as the thin cloud in the front room

where you found light enough to read

In these “After” poems Roark seems to surrender to the haunts of old poets to gain for himself impressions and expressions. He goes deeper with the matter of surrender in the poem “Hiking to Silver Howe,” one of the several poems ‘after’ or in homage to the Wordsworths (William and Dorothy). Here we read how Roark, an inveterate walker of rough terrains, makes the connections he is after, not by striving, but by surrendering. He writes that during a tough climb, he becomes so focused completely on what he’s doing in each moment, that he loses track of his destination. He begins to doubt whether “we’re on the right path/ or that the climb is worth it.” Instead of trying to recovery his certainty, Roark records that he surrendered to that doubt:

Only then does the sky appear

and stark figures silhouetted on a ridge

and tiny spots that might be others below

There are different ways to say how this passage provides a key to what Roark’s poems are ‘saying’ about finding revelations: having an intention is good because it’s what you can let go of so that genuine revelation can appear; knowing what you’re after is fine, because when the energy of the moment overtakes it, you are in the moment with everything else that belongs to it. There is a certain cunning in this way of conducting oneself. It is what Dryden is saying in his characterization of the crafty Lord Shaftesbury in the poem “Absalom and Achitophel”; it is what Polonius proposes about his effort to figure Hamlet out, and it is what Hamlet proposes in trying to connect with the mind of Laertes. The phrase Shakepeare uses (and Dryden after him) is, “By indirections find directions out. ”

In “Deus Ex Camera (For Jim Cohn)” Roark discusses ‘indirection’:

irony is a way of not shooting straight

of indirection somehow, lack of direction, lost direction—

Some blues-singers have a saying about this strategy of deliberately abandoning a sense of direction: “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In such cases, one allows situations to develop on their own, and in this way one is led to revelation, and such moments of revelation, or what Roark refers to as ‘presence,’ are what the poet is after. It happens this way in his poem “This (for CBG)”:

She came out of the sea

luminous, plankton adhered to her flesh,

shining like sunglow in the shape of a girl.

However, revelations of this kind are not necessarily nice. Towards the end of this poem, we find a fullness of revelation akin to what Keats’ knight found “alone and palely loitering,” at the end of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”:

A year later she was off again,

& I was in a wood adjoining the garden

among all the lovely things my love had never been—

my fingers numb with cold,

the brown leaves stuck to my skin—



The poem “After Li Po” (that is also after Pound), has a lovely detail: “the fragrant coriander moon.” It is a perfectly poetic phrase because, while there is no natural reason to connect coriander and the moon, the expression is redolent with suggestions. On the off-chance that there is in China a tradition, discovered by Roark during his extensive travel or reading, that recognizes the association of ‘coriander’ and ‘moon’, I did some research and was rewarded with this connection: coriander is an ingredient in Blue Moon Beer that is brewed in Golden, Colorado, a few miles north of Roark’s home in Boulder.


The poem “Sketch” begins with a teasing irony: “she pulls on the red underwear/you took forty minutes to take off—” then Roark riffs glimpses of ‘she’ that flicker through time and space “before she turns and disappears.” The tone is playful. The woman is fickle. The poet is lonesome.

“Entering the Tetons,” is about a few moments Roark had with a waitress in a cafe. I have a short poem made out of that situation. Bob Dylan worked his version of it into a very long ballad called “My Heart is in the Highlands.” Roark gets the mood of his poem and mine and Dylan’s right when he writes that there is something ‘slightly edgy’ about the scene. The edge is lonesomeness.What makes his poem outstanding, apart from the accuracy of it, is that Roark fashions it, without commentary, entirely out of bare details of the scene:

There are mallards on the lake & my waitress is beautiful and young & there’s a dying sunflower & some dried daisies on my table. The sun’s out & when I spoke with her there was a slight smile, shy & nervous, her dark hair pulled back with a barrette. I gave her a nice tip because it’s Sunday & we shared a moment here, & when I said it was beautful she said thanks as it it was her lake, & it is in a way, the blue sunlight, the shadowed mountains, the air which finally cleared of smoke & haze….

This is bravely done in a ‘no ideas but in things’ William Carlos Williams sort of way.


Roark also commands language that takes ‘things’ in a direction away from ‘things’, out of physical existence, into pure thought. He does it in the poem “Light Likeness (for Stan Brakhage) —the film-maker who abstracted light from images in film:

seeing oneself seeing,

the optic nerves

clutching at light until even

thought itself becomes electrical

& the world is light—

In “Coltrane,” he disembodies the energy of the saxophonists improvisations into a flickering intention:

not moving forward but

falling forward, losing

pretensions of the not-me


to move my attention

elsewhere or else to

even all until any one is just like

another and somehow to

blur it too, here where we

thought we were building,

coming to, arriving, merely

falling farther than we thought,

to see we are not seen.

The poem provides me with a new way to look into the musical abstractions of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Roark ranges from detail into abstraction in the poignant “Elegy (for Allan Ginsberg)”, where he begins in physical detail—“you kissing my throat—” a level of imagery that dissolves progressively in the next stanza towards abstraction, music, and later in the stanza, to “The Triumph of Death.”

—rhythmic waves, riverbeds of

new selves, sounds between breaths

the way an eagle disappears into light,

defined by not being there at all—

like the air between the eye and the object it perceives

like music which shapes and forms the invisible….

There it is, and here it is again—in the poem”Written With Joe’s Pen”—where in the flow of Roark’s experience, seeing becomes listening becomes disappearing, which is revealed in this poem as the goal of his journey in this book:

I finally see it—that when I listen

I disappear—and that is where I want to be—

how that is what I really love—how in that moment

of listening, I completely disappear.



In the moment of listening the poet may disappear, but on the page where that disappearance is noted, there remains a voice, however disembodied, of the poet talking to himself, or, in Roark’s case, it is often his voice talking to a friend.

This book ends with a whale of a poem, 17 pages long, entitled “A Book of the Dead (For Philip Whalen).” The first voice on the page is that of the dedicatee: “I am not lonely, I am here—/and my presence makes a considerable difference.” Whalen’s ‘voice’ implies me, the reader, reminding me that “my presence also makes a considerable difference.” In a similar way, Roarks voice in his opening lines implies the presence of a listening ear, perhaps the reader, to whom he is telling a story: “I met her in Connecticut where I was born…” Further on, Roark is talking into ‘her’ ear: “Later, I walked up the hill to see you, and there we and the universe were restored.” Later still, ‘she’ gets a voice and he listens to ‘her’ say: “Go home then, she said, smiling. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

            Mona Lisa’s Veil is a Book of the Dead in the sense that the narrator seems to become disembodied in the passage through the present time of the poems. The reader gets to know the poet as one who is being deluged by a phatasmagoria of memories of his past, as is said to be the case in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In that sacred text, it is said that the consciousness experiencing passage from one life to the next may be confused by the deluge of memories that are all the more insidious because the comsciousness is no longer grounded in a material body. What could ground, give direction and strength to the disembodied Tibetan ‘traveller’ is the voice of the guru chanting passages of instruction from the Book. In Roark’s case what he hears that sustains him is “the beat of the verse, the variety of its rhythms….”

“A Book of the Dead (For Philip Whalen)” ends in an ambiguous light: “Daylight flickers on and off, not changing anything, bringing an end to us a long time ago. ” In this ending, the pilgrim-poet is sadder, possibly wiser, forlorn, but in present time. His a present is enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile, insubstantial as her veil. Here are the closing lines of Roark’s book:

I’m thinking of roses this morning

and feeling sick about it all.

It’s sad to hear the music fade—

the fragile balance I was searching for.

So what is it we were about to frame?

Roses, I suppose.



“When is it really over? What is the true ending? All borders are like a line drawn with a stick of wood or the heel of a shoe in the sand: All this is artificial. Tomorrow we play another game.” Diary of Francisco Tanzer.



“In ordinary life we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future… Only in sleep, in the religious experience and in art are we able to experience the lasting present time.” Sophia Gubaidulina, In Tempus Praesens–Concerto for violin and Orchestra (2006-7).


[i] In 1820, Jean-François Champollion published his decipherment of the Rosetta hieroglyphs, showing that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.

Howard Carter (1874-1939) discovered the intact tomb of the Pharoah Tuankhamun in 1922.


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