This is a slim, beautiful chapbook of twenty poems by Victoria Sullivan of one or two pages each, accompanied by photos by Barbara Milman. Though the photos and the poems are not specifically related or aligned, they share a Zen-like artistic sensibility that makes them work well together.
Sullivan (an occasional CultureCatch contributor) maintains homes in both New York City and Saugerties; it is the latter location, where she is in constant contact with nature, that most informs the tone of this book. She is a poet of a certain age; she has lived, and loved, and lost, and learned. In the latter category, she has acquired the wisdom -- partly thanks to Buddhism, one guesses based on direct references, not least the brilliant poem titled "Zen" that closes the volume -- of acceptance and non-attachment without overdoing either.
She has also picked up the only slightly more mundane knack of giving us her thoughts on these and other matters in an elegant vernacular that is free from the superfluous and always strikes the right tone. When she speaks of her late husband in "The Coming" and "Mourning Song," she does so without melodrama or any metaphorical shrieking, yet still with a depth of feeling that can bring tears to the reader's eyes. When she is witty, whether for a whole poem or in an aside, it's with a light touch. When she's serious about philosophical topics, there is no preaching or pedanticism; one feels she is just passing along practical observations, not delivering dictums.
A few quotes can serve to roughly represent Sullivan's themes:
"There's such a thing as emotional decorum, and I am, if all goes well, intending to embody it." (from "In the Little House")
"Alone we stumble in the dark. Together we rise live living hearts into the brilliant skies." ("Night and the Soul")
"But nature knows the story is always death and renewal, the winter and the spring." ("The Coming")
It is not so much that she reminds us that we are part of nature, though that is important, of course; it is that the lessons of nature can help us avoid damaging detours by pointing us back toward the real point of life and give us perspective.
Though the most emotionally powerful poems dominate the overall impression of the book, the actual experience of reading it is not unremittingly weighty; there is more than sufficient balance between humor and profundity to ensure. Also, in case you're wondering, the profundity successfully skirts feel-good vapidity, and the humor is never empty clowning. Furthermore, the sequencing helps relieve the pressure of the most powerful poems, as does the visual element contributed by Milman's photos and the occasional drawn-in extensions or technical manipulations of the art.
Sullivan's combination of artistic grace and hard-earned wisdom is more than just beautiful; it is enlightening, nourishment for the soul. She refers in "Zen" to "the journey to the deep self." When I Wasn't Looking does a good job of setting on on that journey. - Steve Holtje
Ms. Sullivan will be reading from When I Wasn't Looking at the Harmony Cafe in Woodstock on Monday, June 24 at 8 PM.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.