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Volume 40.3
Autumn 2009

 

book review:

A Sealed Jar of Mustard Seeds
by Scott Metz

Reviewed by Peter Yovu

A Sealed Jar of Mustard Seeds, by Scott Metz. Issue 9 (2009) of ant ant ant ant ant, edited by Chris Gordon. Unnumbered pages; 5  x 8. No ISBN. Price: SAE with 76¢ stamp, from the editor at 760 Cherry Ave., Eugene OR 97404.

I’ll say it from the start: Scott Metz is not someone who will rest easy within any parameters of what haiku is supposed to be:

without permission part of me starts to bloom

he says. The book fairly hums with the distant echo of some Big Bang upon whose multiple waves and particles he is carried, along with a butterfly’s thoughts, war statistics, glass elevators, and perception itself. The sense of play within these poems is profound. It is word play as much as it is world-play. And the world of Scott Metz is not fantasy: it is the multidimensional world we all inhabit, aspects of which we often ignore or deny: apprehended by the senses; informed by dreams, memories, and shadow; transfigured by imagination. Metz would deny nothing.
It is the artist’s role to show us more than we habitually see; sometimes to show us more than we want to see or believe we can handle:

the war awakens the face of an insect in the mirror

But the fact that Metz is willing to look, and willing to give form to horror as well as inchoate joy is an encouragement. What we want in a poem is to feel for ourselves the original impulse which brought it into being. It may leave you on a different shore than the one on which I find myself, but we face the same ocean.

Many haiku to which we are accustomed guide us by staying within the bounds of the known, in content and approach. The threshold from ordinary to poetic space may be easily crossed, but in every corner one finds an easy chair. This is seldom true for Metz; he rarely gives us the opportunity to get comfortable, to know at first what state we are in, though we will usually (or unusually) sense it. This is because many of his poems exist on multiple levels requiring multiple readings.

Consciousness is layered, its facets and twists of language separate and return to unity all the time. The ground shifts under our feet. Perception is raw in the face of the unknown and this is the challenge of the best poems in the book.

There are pieces here I consider “entry-level” poems:

meadow speaking the language she dreams in

in which Metz takes our hand and lets us know we are in an extra-ordinary reality. Even so, the poem will not work unless we are willing to allow the interplay of waking and dreaming states. This requires a suppleness of mind, unhinged from its usual frame.

winter day barely one language

This poem may be more realized; the poet lets us go into it alone. Having come this far, the following poem may seem relatively easy to “grasp.” It has a familiar feel to it, but has been successfully infiltrated by non-ordinary perception. It demonstrates, I believe, how “mainstream” haiku may be expanded by serious experimentalists like Metz. By “experimentalist” I mean someone willing to unlock experience and bring it to art.

green noise the cicada can’t hear it

But the best poems, as I said, do not locate us; we are more likely to feel dislocated, uneasy, or confused. Giving in to the feeling of being lost may help us find our way. Antonio Machado has a wonderful poem that may speak to this: “Mankind owns four things / that are no good at sea: / rudder, anchor, oars / and the fear of going down.” Metz’s poem

the blood rushing through my blowhole winter stars

like the rush of experience itself, offers more than we can take in at once. We need to slow it (and ourselves) down. The initial experience is a sensual one: it is pleasurably spoken or whispered, and doing so will emphasize its sheer kinetic force. The second layer of experience moves from the body to the mind, to the search for meaning. But the mind may be baffled here, for the poet has not given much to guide us. Why blood, why my blowhole, why winter stars? He seems to want to keep the experience of reading the poem raw and alive — not comforting, not familiar. It is the aliveness we feel that keeps our attention on the poem. Relaxing our need to know, we may experience the poem from a strange point of view. Having felt the plosive force of the language, we sense it first in our body and what becomes available to us then is the violence and ecstasy of a sea creature’s death throes.

But here Metz may be what Yeats called “a literalist of the imagination,” which is to say, he does not take an ironic or distancing stance relative to what he creates. Consider then, the possibility that the blowhole is yours (as experienced in a dream); consider also that it is the uncontainable force of language itself. Consciousness contains multitudes, and in this short poem one may travel a great distance — from body, to mind, to compassion. The layered readings and re-readings show us however, that this is not a linear journey.

The approach I have taken here essentially moves from innocence (the poem as sensual object) to experience (the mind exploring, taking apart, assembling and reassembling) and ends in a dialectic of the two, where knowledge informs innocence, and vice versa. I have found it a rewarding process. One among several interrelated themes in the book is what might be called “perception as reading.” There is not the space to fully explore this (and how it is emphasized by the one-line form) but it is evident that Metz has not excluded language itself from the realm of experience. His explorations into what haiku may be, it seem, have infiltrated his imagination and informed some of his poems. Like this one:

a comma attached to the tip of the flowering branch

in which the “comma” may be seen as a metaphor for an inchworm curled as it pauses to explore the void at the end of a branch, but also enacting what a reader of a challenging poem or of perception itself does when trying to understand something she can’t quite grasp, before it has a name. The unusual, dislocating word “comma” itself gives us pause, and we are thrust back on ourselves. The poem plays with and as perception: we are, if we are able to hold the multiple meanings in a single “field,” aware of how the poem “means” and simultaneously aware of language itself as experience and as perception. Metaphor — or am I talking about haiku? — is an impossibly dense singularity that contains multitudes. This little poem speaks softly but carries a big bang.

I have touched on some of the interwoven themes spread throughout this book. Culling a number of weaker poems would have enhanced the joy of reading it as a whole and helped in locating, as within individual poems, layers and connections between them.

The title poem

a sealed jar of mustard seeds swift moving clouds

teems with multiple readings on multiple dimensions. I leave it to the reader to explore them, and to find connections to other poems. But on one level, the poem speaks to the pain of exclusion and separation, the sealed jar a metaphor for a trapped mind, unable to feel and be changed by the dynamic shape-shifting of moving clouds, much less to experience — if you recall the parable of the mustard seed — heaven.

Another one I could write about at length is this shadow poem:

entering through the back door eaters of light

which appears to be Stephen King scary. But if the unconscious is hungry for the light (“I want ! I want !”), one could say that what it speaks to is only scary when resisted. Certainly this is a major theme of the book: a longing for wholeness, and bringing the innocence of light, through whatever door necessary, to all of our experience. Scott Metz does not need anyone’s permission to bloom; he contains multitudes.

 

 

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