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Jim O'Loughlin's Review of In the Dark, Soft Earth

In the Dark, Soft Earth by Frank Watson. Plum White Press. 2020.
reviewed by Jim O’Loughlin

In the Dark, Soft Earth is a pleasure to both read and view. Its combination of thematically connected poems and reproductions of classic paintings is well conceived and the source of unanticipated insights.

Poet Frank Watson is drawn to paintings that are representational but tend not to be photorealistic. Like the artists Watson admires, his language also paints with wide strokes. The poems in this book are not confessional pieces that plumb the depths of individual experience. Rather, they chart out moments of commonality, experiences that are likely shared and shared because of our mutual connection to the natural world. In the collection’s title poem, Watson writes, “leaves pile wet / where words have failed.” Natural phenomena like wind, sand, and water are not just metaphors. They are the landscape we simultaneously inhabit and in which we find meaning.

In several of the collection’s ten sections or “books,” the reproductions of classic paintings serve the purpose of establishing the tone for the poems that follow in each section. In this regard, Book Four, “Percussion Mind” is particularly noteworthy.  It begins with a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” a playful cubist masterpiece and then transitions into a series of rhythmic, bebop jazz-inspired poems. The effect of this is to build a bridge between two of the 20th Century’s most distinctive art forms, as the poem “cubism,” “putting / together / the jazz cube / beat blues.”

Other sections are more traditionally ekphrastic, as in Book Eight, “An Entrance to the Tarot Garden,” which offers a series of poems that thematically expand on the images found on decks of tarot cards. As with the best ekphrastic work, these poems excel not just by describing the various images of magicians, lovers and the devil, but by adding significance to what might be otherwise unremarked aspects of illustrations, as in “justice” in which we are told “her robe is held / by a simple pin / but no one / will pass the sword / the protects / what’s underneath.”

In the Dark, Soft Earth is subtitled “Poetry of Love, Nature, Spirituality, and Dreams,” all of which can be found on its pages. But what stood out for me is this collection was the care of observation that went into its lines, the insights into human experience and the careful use of language to leap across the chasms of connection.

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Jim O’Loughlin is the author of Dean Dean Dean Dean (Twelve Winters Press).