Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Requiem for the Orchard

At what point does a poet discover his voice? For one thing, the question supposes that such a thing as voice exists, when, really, voice is nothing but a snapshot of the moment’s song. For another, little agreement, aesthetically speaking, on what qualities in a voice are admirable can be found across the generations. Yet, Requiem for the Orchard, the third full-length collection from Oliver de la Paz and winner of the 2009 Akron Prize in Poetry as chosen by Martin Espada, sings with full-throated splendor as it harmonizes wit and tenacity. Half-elegy, half lullaby, the book illustrates how memory can be a cracked and hazy lens through which we gaze backward and forward simultaneously, our hearts as flooded with longing as they are with apprehension, and an occasional moment of levity. But it’s not just the music of de la Paz’s poetry that holds our attention; it’s the stuff of these poems, too, that makes them great. Neruda, with his unflinching affinity for everyday objects, the very thing-ness of a thing, would have loved these poems so stuffed from start to finish with corncobs and storehouses, flames and horses, apples and anchors. Identity, metaphor–both themes dominate the book, and each becomes a critical component to the speaker’s struggle to reconcile the past with the present, all while the future and fatherhood beckons. Early on, “Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon” looks back on the disquiet of youth, though the quest is hardly an attempt at reconciliation: "My name is not a fire. My name is not a story of fire. / I’ve got nothing in common with that element, save contempt // for the places of my youth and a hunger for air. Instead, what’s past is past, and cannot be returned to, for better or worse: “[W]hat’s left / ....crumbles to the touch,” the poem concludes. Again and again, the poet returns to his past. “Requiem,” a long poem split into sections, punctuates much of the book--with more question marks than periods. It’s both an elegy and a self-examination. But de la Paz also turns his eye to the future, and necessarily so. “No One Sleeps through the Night” finds the speaker as sleepless as his infant son: "Little no one, peace and go. / I’ll be watching while the sleep gods // lean and cast their shadows here." Later, the poem articulates the oddity of parental affection, how we love so swiftly and completely what we do not know: "Child, you are my moon apple. // My highly prized coin. Your bright eyes / leave blue glance tracks. Who are you?" One of Requiem’s strengths is its structure, too, how de la Paz knits together this book with recurring elements from poem to poem, title to title. The end result is a fitting conclusion. “Self-Portrait with What Remains” fuses it all, and notes how all that’s left of the past is the present where “...my son's outstretched arms / want[sic] nothing more than to be held aloft.” And it’s that very gesture, of holding aloft an ordinary life with a newly found sense of pleasure and responsibility, that define this book and make it something worth reading, and reading again.