(Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)
At its absolute worst, “travel writing” (including poetry) can come off as the uninspired musings of the self-indulgent, in the way that touristy family photos really only matter to you if the subject is your family. Picture the stereotypically dreaded slideshow-in-the den of a hundred movies and sitcoms, or consider the present day equivalencies of Flickr and Instragram. At its best, however, travel writing might resemble the poems in Christopher Bakken’s third collection, Eternity & Oranges. Just as its title suggests, Bakken’s poems switch registers, settings, and references with the particular deftness and grace of the seasoned traveler. Rhythmically solid poems created from a highly observant, detail-oriented poetic consciousness, Bakken’s work merges the ancient and the contemporary, as well as the mythic and the political, in a way that gathers luminous insights regarding the human condition.
Bakken’s regional obsession as a poet-traveler happens to be Greece and its neighbors, poetic terrain that will be familiar to readers of his earlier collections. However, rather than retreading old themes and crossing too-familiar ground, Bakken manages to keep his obsession fresh via muscular syntax and well-turned images. The poem “Translation” describes the actions of two people living on either side of a river: “Yet to say a woman rose to light a fire, / then went to gather wood in the forest, / explains neither the well nor the water.” Like many other poems in Eternity & Oranges, “Translation” uses the simplicity of its title (as well as the second-person perspective) to transport the reader’s imagination into the landscape of the poem, as opposed to simply depositing direct autobiography. Instead of saying “look where I’ve been” (that old slideshow-in-the-den again), Bakken takes his reader by the hand and leads them there by balancing abstraction and image. “Translation” concludes, “Still, you waved to me from the other bank / when a blue rowboat passed under the bridge. / Both oars in conversation with the river.” That final, almost invisible, metaphor of “conversation” nearly slides unnoticed past the reader as just another speck of the poetic scenery. It’s emphasized through placement in the last line, and sends the reader back through the poem hunting for clues about the many-layered speaker and subject. Many other poems with starkly abstract, commonly Latinate titles (“Denial,” “Resistance,” “Confession,” Defiance,” et al) allow ample room for the reader to explore, interpret, and respond to Bakken’s image and sound-rich lines of free verse.
Rather than simply report on his travels in the Mediterranean, Christopher Bakken instead elucidates and honors the lives of its inhabitants, such as the solitary monk living in a cliffside cave in “Last Station of No One’s Cross” who “sees pollen / spun with dust in a blast from below, / the air he’d dangle in, a rope around his waist.” Or the fishermen of “Squid Fishing” who “ take rain all afternoon / and freezing hands, and sodden combat boots, just to land one pitiful figure—.” Just when the poems begin to feel too similar to one another (both in terms of subject and shape), Bakken wisely includes pieces like “The Skyros Papers” to inject sudden and refreshing bursts of autobiographical or diary-like motion into the book’s flow. No less meticulously composed than its siblings, the poem brings the day-to-day realities of life on Skyros to the reader with a disarming clarity: “When I ask, she calls the blossoms paschalitsa, blooming thanks to the same wind that wrecks them.” Bakken wisely understands the reader’s threshold for indulging autobiography and allows nothing into the poems of Eternity & Oranges that might cause drag or boredom.
Central to the book is a long, stunning sequence of fourteen poems gathered under the title “Kouros/Kore,” the names, respectively, for “archetypes of Greek sculpture—of a young man and of a young woman” (from the author’s notes). The very first section tosses up an echo of James Wright’s infamous and inescapable “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” when the speaker describes the restoration process of an ancient sculpture: “When he fell apart I put back what I could. / So neither of us have wasted our lives.” The entire sequence is imperative to Bakken’s mission of using classical subject matter to reflect the contemporary sensibility that reality is only available in pieces and fragments. The poems create a bridge between the ancient and the immediate that reminds what it is to be human. As in every poem in Eternity & Oranges, this timelessness (comforting yet somehow terrifying) is approached from a new angle and rendered in varying shades of grace. “Troppo Mare,” as one example, offers the sentiment of smallness in the face of both nature and history, and a plea for humility in the face of annihilation: “You already tried to drown me three times. / Yucatan. Thasos. Crete.” Addressing the sea, the poet pleads “Take every hollow carapace and shattered limb, / grind it all to nothing, along with me. // Before then, let me surface just once more. / I ask, in the holy name of what is less.” As one reads Eternity & Oranges, one finds more and more of that inescapable truth: to truly travel is to realize the whole of the planet is a foreign place where beauty and astonishment lurk around every corner.
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Daniel Rzicznek is the author of two poetry collections, Divination Machine (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2009) and Neck of the World (Utah State University Press, 2007), as well as four chapbooks, most recently Live Feeds (Epiphany Editions, 2015). His poems are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Volt, The Pinch, and Sonora Review. Also coeditor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press, 2010), Rzicznek teaches writing at Bowling Green State University.