Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Borrowed Scenery

Review by Michelle McEwen

Janet Krauss, Borrowed Scenery
Yuganta Press, 2005
119 Pages

“The literal meaning of the Japanese word Shakkei is ‘borrowed scenery’ or ‘borrowed landscape’— that is, distant views incorporated into garden settings as part of the design. In its original sense, however, shakkei means neither a borrowed scenery or a landscape that has been bought. It means a landscape captured alive.” – Teiji Itoh

The quote above serves as an explanation of the title Borrowed Scenery. Placed before the table of contents, Itoh’s words were probably picked for two reasons. First, to establish a definition of the word “shakkei” which appears in the title of one of the book’s four sections (A Walk around the Corner, A Shakkei Garden, The Clouds Release the Sky, and We Want to Press Close). Second, Itoh’s words describe well the poems in Borrowed Scenery, for Krauss’s poems do capture landscape and render it alive. In fact, everything seems to be alive in this book: “giant statues stage eternal conversations,” “clouds are rude,” “the elm tree … [hums] with sunlight,” and a “honeysuckle raises its scent as a screen around the porch.” Even colors come alive in Krauss’s hands; we witness this in the poems “On Purple,” “On Orange,” “On White,” and “On Black.” In “On Purple,” purple is

“… the haze settling over the sky and hills
after councils of a tribe leave the flat stones
where they sat to plan the days ahead—
a girl’s initiation dance, a potlatch supper,
a powwow, who should hunt, who should fish.
The low sounds in the distance still echo
the unhurried voices of the elders who know
how to cure the hide of life, how to stretch it,
make it last. The stone seats attest to that,
worn smooth, brushed clean by the wind.”

I will never look at purple in the same way again. In the poem “On Black,” black is something that happens; it “happens when you cannot find/ something of value, and you know it waits/ somewhere but out of place.”

Paintings, too, are alive in this book and almost demand audience participation. This is seen in poems such as “Coastal View” (after the painting “Bristol Coastal View” by William Trost Richards), “What Stays in Place” (after the painting by Gerhard Richter), and “The Lantern Bearers” (after the painting by Maxwell Parish— although I think the poet meant to reference painter Maxfield Parrish). In the poem “The Lantern Bearers”—

“The lantern bearers appear
in the middle of the night
dressed in loose white trousers
and silken shirts.
Poised on the stairs.

… Each hands a lighted globe
to the other
until all the spheres hang upon
the branches to bring day
back to leaves and sky …

… muting the dark.”

In this poem, the words blur then disappear and are replaced by a colorful scene playing out before my eyes; the lighted lanterns make me squint, almost blind me. I experienced the same word-blurring-then-disappearing effect in the poem “Friday Night Fights”— a poem about her and her father watching Friday night fights on television.

“I sit in the center of the hassock
next to my father’s chair …

… In between punches
we discuss each man’s strategy:
Joe Louis’s heroic moves,
Sugar Ray’s dance,
Johannson’s hard rights.
Ali’s poetics. We float
on their triumphs.”

No longer just words on a page, this poem took me from behind the book— placed me in between the hassock and the father’s chair. I partake in the discussion while the three of us are bathed in the glow of television light. Krauss is good at including us in the poem— it’s magic how she does it. Usually, it’s the novel or short story that transports me beyond the page. This is the first time a poetry book has had that effect on me.

“The trick is to make a shakkei garden/ out of your life” so starts the poem “A Shakkei Garden— The Art of Borrowed Scenery.” A few lines later—

“… Set water basins near gravel
or flowering shrubs.
Arrange rocks around leaning grass.
Then borrow a full moon
that guarantees more vision
than a line of lanterns.”

I suggest you do as Krauss suggests: borrow a full moon. Then: pretend your house is a shakkei garden and read this book from start to finish; watch the words fade away and watch the landscape come alive.

Borrowed Scenery can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Janet+Krauss+