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Review of Afloat
From Kevin McNeilly , Event Winter 2013/2014

Afloat by John Reibetanz

Russell Thornton, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain, Harbour Publishing, 2013
Anne Compton, Alongside, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013
John Reibetanz, Afloat, Brick Books, 2013

Though distinct in style and conception, these remarkable books demonstrate mature vision and formal command: hallmarks of poets in their heyday. I’ll take them on one at a time but, juxtaposed by happenstance, they seem collectively to frame a preoccupation with lyric language as a means of managing (and even celebrating) a shared, remaindered humanity. These poems persist in their search for an uneasy but necessary verbal music, for a line that aspires to set itself against the demise of poetic insight. ‘My eyes are the bandages of my eyes,’ Russell Thornton writes, wanting to remediate both language and vision in the carefully balanced circuit of a momentary perimeter. There are ‘still songs to sing beyond/the human,’ as John Reibetanz translates Paul Celan’s ‘Faddensonnen.’ The poems of Thornton, Compton and Reibetanz offer neither panacea nor placebo, but attempt temporarily to suture the ontological wounds of a fractured human condition….

Most of the poems of John Reibetanz’s Afloat deal with water, but as with Thornton and Compton, also seek out elemental resonances: ‘all nature wants to be water,’ Reibetanz notes in the opening poem, but this Herakleitean claim is quickly offset by a careful nuancing—akin to Compton’s reflexive honing—of the apparatuses of attention: ‘we see/ourselves in this buoyancy,’ afloat and partially immersed in the shifting streams of sense. Reibetanz is a poet’s poet, showing us how it is done, and done well. His work converses with, repurposes and translates the involute flows of literary history, but also aspires to immediacy amid these formal mediations. ‘Come down,’ he tells himself, ‘from your mind’s penthouse, that fastness/deaf to traffic.’ Inspiration, if any is still to be had, cannot abide the rarefied: ‘In search of ground to stand on, air to breathe,’ a drowned-out muse needs to walk ‘the torso’s paths’ to find embodied vitality. Reibetanz’s poems, on first pass, do not seem to speak from the gut: formal craft, reining in unruly breath, predominates over material and perceptual flows. But despite their sculptural rigour, these poems also gesture toward exceeding their bounds, to discovery not as colonization but as encounter: ‘New-found, never-caught,’ leaping ‘through the heart’s grip.’ A nostalgia for newness and a yearning for some missing visionary wonder impel Reibetanz’s writing to catch hold of a ‘new-found voice’ that ‘takes off’ from the quotidian. He asks for poetic structures that both enable and reveal, trying to transcribe a perceptible music, for instance, from the lovely jumble of birdsong: ‘How but through/this blueprint for an architecture of air/can the eye make out what the ear takes in.’ He is just trying to see those birds he hears, but the idea goes further, wanting a style answerable to those wild, corporeal rhythms, and trying to shape it from the received patterns of an all-too-human poetry, manifest here in those crisp, tensile pentameters. The book goes on to develop longer, fractured lines as if to accommodate this tension:

That year after sun-aproned earth brought forth her paler
ochre yield of chickpea and maize blue air broke into
a blossoming of flame more millions of orange petals…

The multiple, off-kilter caesurae loosen Reibetanz’s characteristically taut lines, and give his voice a flexible timbre that, in some ways, offers renewal, offers a revitalized music. Afloat aims to renew and to revitalize poetic resonance.

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