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kerry rawlinson's Review of In the Dark, Soft Earth

IN THE DARK, SOFT EARTH
Poetry of Love, Nature, Spirituality, and Dreams; by Frank Watson
Publisher: Plum White Press, 2020

Reviewed by kerry rawlinson

In this thoughtful collection, the prolific poet Frank Watson contemplates meaning within the context of the natural world, from the minute to the infinite, and seeks a place for himself therein.

The collection is divided into ten “books,” each with a title, complemented by famous artworks as varied as the subject matter itself. Yet Watson’s querying mind maintains a consistent thread throughout. From his opening statement: “finding meaning/ in the underpinnings/ of this soft earth,” the poet sets the tone and leads us gently through spare vignettes and visual moments; thoughts and musings; loss and longing. From Book One: Within The Weeping Woods, for example, loss is poignantly evoked in “driftwood:” “the shipwreck/ of frozen dreams// marked by rocks/ awash on shoals--//…. alone in time/ and dead to me.”

Watson’s poems are haiku-like in their sensibility and brevity. Indeed, “Leaf After Leaf In the Pure Wind” is inspired by the haiku of Keido Fukushima, which accompanies the poem. At their best, Watson’s observations of the human condition are often profound. Consider these lines from “adrift:” “pallid and hollow/ we’ve drifted/ through this town/ for centuries/ and no one’s home…. //walking/ in breathless prayer/…without imagination// where flames drive me deep/ into the song of sleep/ and the narrow road/ that carries me off somewhere.” Here Watson manages to capture in a few, choice words both the despair and the inevitability of the exile’s rootles, hopeless situation.

As another example of his best purity of meaning and visual clarity, Watson offers us this beauty, in “notes:” from Book Seven: Omens: “I laid a lilac/on her plot of earth/ and waited/ for something new to grow.” And although the poem “lost” could have benefitted from distillation, it provides us nonetheless with haunting imagery when describing the loss of a child: “walking between the raindrops/ she searches for her missing child// the candle burns/ the paper in books/ can never explain/ what she has lost.” Equally memorable is Watson’s eulogy for the poet, Dave King; and the “loose translation” of “Little Red Peach” by Liu Dao is delightful.

In Book Eight, “An Entrance to the Tarot Garden”, Watson gives us his poetic impressions of the characters on the faces of Tarot Cards as illustrated by various artists. This is an interesting section, and the poems offer some delightful nuggets like in “The High Priestess:” “I see the dreams/ I dare not write// she listens/ to the secrets of the night/ and smiles/ a crescent moon” and from the poem “world:” “there are many paths she could have walked/ and yet the only one/ is the one she takes.”

If there’s any drawback, it would be that Watson’s symbolism is frequently repetitive and formulaic (sea; sand; moon; drifting; drowning; a thousand years, etc.) and sometimes the rhyming rambles into cliché. Awareness is sometimes lacking. Bashō the famous haibun poet himself once criticized work that had no substantial quality of aware: “Of course, anyone can keep a diary with such entries as 'On this day it rained...in the afternoon it cleared...at that place is a pine...at this place flows a river called Such-and-such'; but unless sights are truly remarkable, they shouldn't be mentioned at all.” I think the same contention is relevant here. The contrast between perspective and reflection necessary to maintain poetic tension is absent from some of Watson’s work, and if held against the Upanishads, or the translations of Rumi, several of these poems should have been distilled, as mentioned before, or cut; and the collection would be stronger for it.

At its absolute best, poetry rocks us, provides something unexpected/ thought-provoking; ordinary contrasted with shock. Where Watson succeeds, he succeeds beautifully. In closing, some lines from Book Ten: Stories Before I Sleep are my personal favourites in this collection, From the poem “within the depths:” “the Earth is a language/ spoken from an abyss// blind, we move our arms, flailing…// but there are no victors/ there are no survivors.”
Words to ponder indeed.
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Decades ago, autodidact/ bloody-minded optimist kerry rawlinson gravitated from sunny Zambian skies to solid Canadian soil. Now she stalks Literature & Art’s Muses around the Okanagan Valley, still barefoot, her patient husband ensuring she eats. Recent achievements: Edinburgh International FlashFictionAward; FishPoetryPrize; BestCanadianPoetry 2019 (Notable.) Newer pieces: Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Foreign LiteraryJournal, AcrossTheMargin, PaintedBride, TupeloQuarterly, Pedestal, ArcPoetry, amongst others. Visit her on Tumblr; Tweet @kerryrawli