This evening was a book release party for Tom Savage's Bamiyan Poems. A limited edition chapbook (nearly sold out already) with a beautiful cover, it's published by Sisyphus Press, run by Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo (the cover artist), the dynamic duo of the downtown poetry scene. All three read, with the honoree leading off the night with the longest slot in the program.
Bamiyan Poems was written in Afghanistan during a 1970 trip to the Bamiyan Budhhas, the two largest Buddha statues in the world. These imposing figures with a colorful history were a long-time attraction until the Taliban blew them up in 2000 for violating Islam's rule against idols.
Savage first read from the book, a series of short poems over the course of which we seemingly see the Buddhas -- well, what they stand (sit?) for -- affect his thinking as the poems move towards understanding.
After that, Savage read three poems, not included in the book, written after the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas. In his introductory remarks, Savage had said that even though he lives near the World Trade Center, 9/11 affected him less personally than had the loss of these statues. It's thus even more impressive how philosophical the later poems are -- the mature products of a master poet who can look at the destruction of the statues with a Buddhist acceptance of chance and the transience of this world, as in this excerpt from "The Last Bamiyan Poem":
We will not miss being dead statues
There solely to have others read their own
Perceptions and interpretations onto us.
We have achieved total egolessness and nonbeing
Like the arhats, those followers of the real, historical Buddha
Who achieved total liberation
And need never be reborn again.
Chances are we would have returned
As lesser statues anyway had we
Ever been truly born or died.
Now we are rubble as much of
The Muslim world may be rendered soon.
We are happy to have achieved perfect nonbeing
Even if it happened with a bang
Dalachinsky followed with poems written during a recent trip to France, including a meditation on the filmmaker Pasolini inspired by 1975 photos of Dino Pedriali. In the style of an increasingly dominant vein of his work, they tended towards internal repetition (spiced with double meanings) but, like minimalist music, with slight shifts each time so that the poems develop gradually, moving elliptically towards their climaxes in a rhythmically insistent manner that channels his trademark nervous energy. Bursting with unexpected connections, his poems are full of excitement and observations that carry the freshness of new discovery.
Otomo was the calm after the storm, though beneath the placid surface of her poetry -- and her calm vocal delivery -- can be found a roiling cauldron of emotions. The highlight was a nostalgia-tinged poem about her yearning for a desk, sparked by remembrance of the green desk of her schooldays but thwarted by the limited space of a New York apartment. Clearly the desk symbolizes an array of more significant factors, but with subtle grace rather than bluntly. Even amid large structures and big themes, her observations and descriptions have a delightful gem-like quality.
Three of New York's best poets, highly contrasted in manner and style, made for a highly fulfilling evening of poetry. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. He has just finished recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.