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Sharon Ann Jaeger's Review of In the Dark, Soft Earth

Frank Watson. In the Dark, Soft Earth: Poetry of Love, Nature, Spirituality, and Dreams.  Plum White Press, 232 pp. 

Publication Date: July 7, 2020

Paperback $19.99 (ISBN: 9781939832207)

Hardcover $29.99 (ISBN: 9781939832191)


Frank Watson has published two earlier gatherings of poems—THE DOLLHOUSE MIRROR and SEAS TO MULBERRIES—and one of translations, ONE HUNDRED LEAVES.  This is his third poetry collection to be issued by Plum White Press. Watson’s readers will recognize his signature “micropoems,” some of which register fleeting and evocative perceptions, in the mode of haiku or other Asian poetry, while other poems register dreamlike surrealist moments of awareness, whether in the moment or remembered, sometimes haunting, sometimes already evanescing despite memory’s attempts to access them again, much less retain them.

These micropoems are more like fast radio bursts than Birkeland currents in the great swirling galaxy of quantum consciousness that a single human awareness can only experience but never encompass. Watson rings the changes on the dialectic of change that is the nub of human existence: between hope for X, presence/possession of X, loss (or fear of loss) of X, perception of absence of X—then around again on the cycle.

Divided into ten books, IN THE DARK, SOFT EARTH is a vivid verbal smorgasbord complemented generously by paintings and drawings, from the Monet garden of the cover to ideals of female beauty throughout art history, such as from the Neoclassical or Surrealist periods, to other visual renderings that are less focused, more evocative and haunting like the interrelational pairings of subjects in Watson’s love poems. Overall, the artworks generally add a visual dimension to his word renderings of pensive or elusive sensual encounters of male and female, which however personal, in their subtlety hint at the archetypal.

This gathering of ten groupings or “books” includes poems from Watson’s earlier collections. Striking and arresting, even quintessential, no matter how many times one rereads it—is “mirror” (p. 40) in Book Two: Between Time and Space, published earlier in THE DOLLHOUSE MIRROR:

a doll stares out
the store window
at the little girl
of her dreams

What it means to be human—there it is, encapsulated and suspended like the ISS in near-earth orbit...our perceptions, if not our inner knowing apart from perceiving, require a past and a future moment for anything to happen, to be born, out of the present moment…. Watson has skillfully encapsulated that paradox of perception and of our limited existence, intertwined with the truths of the heart—the hope for the unreachable presence on the other side of the store window, as it were, or recognition as re-cognition.

On another note that reoccurs in Watson’s micropoems, otherworldly mythic scenes such as Nicholas Roerich’s “Conjurer” make visually vivid his poetic intimations of the nature of human consciousness in the vast, overwhelming, elusive universe of being and almost-knowing in which human beings are situated—between one’s birth as a being in rich yet unassuming kinship with the earth, free from technological bondage, until each human be-ing goes back into the “dark, soft earth.” As the collection progresses over time, the poet, now in middle age, is haunted, though not oppressed, by the inexorable fate of being human, his mortality foreseen in glimpses of his own or, in memoriam, of treasured shadow presences of friends.

As Watson writes in the spare paired lines of “within the depths,”
“the Earth is a language / spoken from within an abyss / … / but there are no victors/ there are no survivors / … . ” (p. 209).

Inevitably, each reader will resonate with different poetic moments in this collection. There are some richly powerful passages to consider as you encounter them: In Book Five: A Dance Between the Light, consider the opening of a poem cryptically entitled simply “fate” (p. 75):

she sat
with Humpty Dumpty
and gave him
a little push
(for such is life)

Or in “alibis” (p. 93), from Book Five: A Dance Between the Light, there is a revelatory and ever-so-telling encapsulation in all its biblical finality:

there was one lover
too many in the garden
that would’ve been Eden

Then again, in “shades” (p. 96),

what she did not say
he knew in the silence
between their lips

In the eponymous poem of Book Six: Beneath the Raven Moon, the poet declares: “I ask for nothing more / than a road that never ends” (p. 106)

In “midnight philosophers” (p. 108), the speaker “moan[s] at the moon / from the dead pool / of collected souls.”

In “backwoods” (p. 110), he is: “entering / the midnight forest / with wolf eyes lit / to lead the way.”

In the closing stanza of “moon lover”(p. 114): “I kiss the water /
as she drifts away / but still I see / her shadow remain.”

As Watson moves on to Book Seven: Omens, a haunting overlay of dim, eroded history is captured in the poem “omens” (p. 137), evoking an ancient flood “in the dream scrolls / of the long drawn dead,” yet also in these times premonitory:

there were bodies
many bodies
above and below the streets
and all were one with the city

It is in Book Seven that one finds the eponymous “in the dark, soft earth” (p. 144)

where I recline
on a hill of fresh cut grass

daisies in the air
the cries of wild birds

and I wait for you
in this life and the next

# # #

Book Eight: An Entrance to the Tarot Garden, could be regarded as an an interlude between the “Omens” of Book Seven and Book Nine: Across the Continents.  This section is devoted to the principles of the Major Arcana, which could be viewed as forces in the cycles of humanly experienced time. Some of the painting-poem pairings in Book Eight come from the well-known and stylized Waite deck, while others are selected from the deck that Bonifacio Bembo is reputed to have created in the mid-1400s for the powerful Visconti and Sforza families in Milan, an arc of history eerie in retrospect. 

In the arcanum of “Death” (p. 179), over and over in the cycle (of reincarnation?), what more precarious summary can there be than

time is a web
that wraps our dreams
in a spider’s bite

For the “World” (p. 195), the inevitable is cloaked as the illusion of choice:

there are many paths
she could have walked
and yet the only one
is the one she takes

For “Justice,” (p. 175) the reader is confronted with the inexorability of mortality (and, likely, of karma incurred):

in just a minute
it was a lifetime too much

on the stairway to death
there is no room
to turn around


Book Nine: Across the Continents includes some of Watson’s translations along with poems inspired by originals in other languages.


In Book Ten: Stories Before I Sleep, in “within the depths” (p. 209), Watson registers eminently succinctly la condition humaine and the poet’s role:

“the Earth is a language / spoken from within an abyss // … // but there are no victors / there are no survivors // …” He knows when to stop and leave the reader nose-to-nose with the way things are.

In the often elegiac Book Ten, Watson’s poem “that night” (p. 212) opens, “That night she died a little, / in a moment before my eyes.  I kissed // her and still she did did not wake.  I lifted her in my arms and carried her / to an early grave. She invited / me in for a drink but I wasn’t ready. // So I walked the nighttime fog and listened / to the moan of her voice for a thousand years.” //

For such haunting micromoments, Frank Watson’s IN THE DARK, SOFT EARTH requires, and repays, rereading.


Sharon Ann Jaeger
Author of The Chain of Dead Desire (Park Slope Editions, 1990) and Filaments of Affinity (Park Slope Editions, 1989)
June 2020

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