2 BOOKS by GLENNA LUSCHEILYNN STRONGIN Reviews
Shot with Eros: New and Selected Poems by Glenna Luschei
(John Daniel & Co., Santa Barbara, CA., 2002)
SEEDPODS by Glenna Luschei
(Presa :S: Press, Rockford, MI, 2006)
GLENNA LUSCHEI: Prairie Child & Celtic Singer
If one doesn’t think of Canadian poets as mystical, perhaps it is because one hasn’t looked closely enough at Anne Hebert and Margaret Avison. Margaret Atwood has described a people colonized, characterized inside as ironic stoics in a sort of “garrisoned consciousness.” Constance Rooke has written “Fear of the Open Heart” (1989) which argues those poets in this land suffer from a “Scots-Presbyterian repression feeling.” But a handful of Northern poets are visionaries. Thomas Gerry has written about Gwendolyn MacEwen as a mystical poet. Russell Morton Brown argues for Al Purdy, who might laugh at the idea of “visionary breakthroughs” painting a man in the backyard of his Eastern Ontario home overlooking Roblin Lake. Purdy looks at a workman climbing a steeple whom he refuses to let become a symbol of transcendence” Nonetheless this has been a visionary experience The presence of the numinous” was seen in Margaret Avison, Jay MacPhreson, Anne Carson.
This brings us to the question: what is visionary in poetry? An almost pictorial revelation, which transcends words but which, takes place in the realm of the world. It tends to be “momentary” and vulnerable. Awe and illumination are components of a visionary experience: “Not a terror of the dangers . . . of nature, but a terror of the soul” (Northrop Frye) Reason cannot account for our existence: it beggars a visionary frame. Glenna Luschei, Di Brandt and Margaret Avison are three poets who sustain this visionary frame. Magnum Mysterium was a phrase beloved of the medievalists. Mystery takes each of these three poets by the throat and whirls her around. Idea of the North, stun of Mennonite severity upon children or Celitc blaze all inspire awe. which astounds “I have always tried to use incantation and ritual in poetry,” Luschei says.
Erin Moure wrote Little Theatres whose title comes from Elisa Sampedrin, 1991 who wrote In little theaters, that there are but faces. Boots are faces, a table is a face, and the grass has an expression that is facial. When Levinas said, “the face is not of the order of the seen” he was making the right connection, but backward. All of what is seen is faces. (Elisa Sampedrin, 1991) The poet of the North does not suffer frostbite. Avison, Brandt, and Luschei create camera boxes, microcosms of the globe, theatres in which the drama of life is played out and in these is the visionary breakthrough.
The combination of a mystic’s solitary communion with nature as well as holy terror have come to be synonymous with the North although they are also reminiscent of the South: the heat of St. John of the Cross; of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Portuguese nun; the Southern mystics. The prairie moves Di Brandt; the Nebraska fields stir Glenna Luschei. James Reaney has written a poem “The Alphabet” which critic which can be seen as moving like the Bible’s wheel, from the dewy morning of Eden’s fields . . .”The stone is the wind, the wind is the stone.”
It is my intent to trace mysticism in each of these poets first tied to her formal religion, then espousing breakaway freedom. Since mystical experience challenges what can be put into words, the issue of language is crucial. (Stan Ragland sees language as an issue in Canadian poetry--it is in all poetry.) He writes:
These writers are all languaged inside words. But . . .keep returning to a point of permeability between themselves and the non-human others with whom they share the world.
“Poetry is the rearing in language of a desire whose end lies beyond language,” Lilburn says.
Glenna Luschei: Never Blocking the Radiance
In August 2006, Glenna Luschei wrote:
"It amazes me how my Celtic background has been a revelation to me, even though my life studies have been in Spanish and Portuguese, Gaelic, from Galicia, being a language of the Celts, and Northern Portugal holding some Celtic settlements. Passion, poetry, magic and ritual are the four tenants of the Gaelic Cult as scripture, experience, prayer and tradition are of my present practicing Methodist faith. I am the covener. . . of an activist group of Methodist Women, Cosrow in which I lead my sisters in some Celtic rituals. Once I am exposed, however, I feel that I may become one of the New Mexican penitentes, Spanish priests who lived in isolated communities so far from the Church that the began the practice of crucifying their own members."
Steven Sher wrote, "Glenna Luschei is a modern-day Judith, life's passion bared, tempting us to enter her tent: these poems, as honest and intoxicating as lust, are as exotic as dream. Here is writing at its most intimate and sensual—poetry as aphrodisiac, imagery seductive.... Love, for Luschei, is the only peace we deeply know, the one sure legacy we leave." Robert Bly observes of Luschei, “"Glenna Luschei's poems are always lively, brave, sometimes biting as lime juice—written by an enchanting mind."
One who keeps the covenant, Luschei never stops, never resists the radiance about and within her. Of her Nebraska roots, she says, "I dream most about my grandfather's 'farm' in Furnas County near Beaver City where I lived as a child. He had come to Red Cloud in a covered wagon before the turn of the century and became the county defender, starting a family tradition that includes my brother John Stevens Berry and my son, Erich."
Shot With Eros covers thirty years in the writing career of poet/rancher/publisher Glenna Luschei, the editor/publisher of Cafe Solo Magazine and Solo Press. Poems here are moving, intelligent, deeply personal and celebrate that willpower that overcomes tragedy and loss. Her ear is fine tuned, her eye takes in the natural world, and above all she is attuned to countryside and speech of human relationships." End here and move to next paragraph beginning "Her book Unexpected Grace."
Her book Unexpected Grace was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Incantation has always fascinated. The poems clearly argue that this woman knows earth’s labors: bearing and birthing children (four) preserving jams, gathering harvest, farming in Nebraska toil, yet knows the idea of heaven or earth-ecstasy equally. Her latest book Seedpods (Presa Press, Michigan) makes this is abundantly clear. “Arts Poetica” (p. 25) prays to get wet fingers “digging out rot / around the daffodil.” Daffodil is poet, not rot. In her continuing unfolding revelation she is connected to earth. Her lists, like those in Ecclesiastics which the preacher sings are revelator: “Treading on Plums” reveals such things in proximity to one another as “choke-cherry nectar” and “cheesecloth,” stocking a cellar with jelly and a father “who labored all day, a/ at night boiled rice for drifters / riding the rails through town.” The alliteration is effective and so is the poet listening to “laments of losing farms. / licked jelly from the paraffin.” A wax seals the vision as isinglass seals the fire behind the Franklin or Edison stoves.
Through fingers spread like a fan she sees “Periwinkle filigree of tree” and introduced the exotic Spanish name for heaven Jacaranda in the title poem of the book:
In the rattling of the seedpods
I still hear castanets.
Haiku have inspired Lucshei’s poems with her epigrammatic wisdom and images. The couple “Zebra” (p. 33) observes radiantly, humorously “Even his skeleton / has stripes!” “Our blades Cutting Horse Tails” reveals earth at a new angle, oblique to sky, blade-sharp.
Our blades cutting horse tails
we loved the world from one new angel
. . .skated the sky.”
If we sink deeply enough, we might understand. However, what if we can’t breathe? We are torn between the desire, the need for oxygen and the desire to move below the surface “waving antennae, upside down.” Not to skitter but to plumb the depths is our urge. And yet despite the ecstasy, we are mortal, beauty and our perception of it are finite:
I thought they would never end
the walks through the meadow of the blue vervain
where the heron nested in eucalyptus.
I thought they would always remain
my four blue eggs.” (p. 38)
Are these not her four children, the eldest of whom died in her prime? The word cannot remain but the poet concludes, “I put my teapot on and lose my head again in steam.”
This immersion characterizes Luschei’s poems with the opened mouth of true religious feeling. “O,” we perceive the poet saying over and over as one goes thru earth’s compendium like leafing thru an enchanted library stack of books, keeping one’s carrel always on the side, the idea of it, retreat. “Time is the canoe. / we climb into our vehicles. . .We go unswerving. / We do / what is to be done.” Stoic, she watching October sun “float past. . .door / on a string? knowing it will disappear. So her firstborn, so at last her life. Meanwhile, she yearns for the healing blanket, the anonymity and comfort of snow—akin to death but not death. “Birches” (p. 19) begins with an epigraph from Tom McGrath, “Love belongs to the North.” One senses that this poet is incapable of self-pity, inculcated from childhood to the rigors of the north. She craves snow “crusted on rows and rows / of poles on barges.” This she yearns for as they “encompass the Arctic Circle.” But no, she sees only birches with white bark and recalls the letters (languaged, once more) which each of her children carved, their “first letters to me on birch bark.”
Incantation, she uses repetition for effect. Strangely, “There is room in the ocean / for the doll, the skull and the anchor” occurs in “Over Four Corners” which ends with the perception “When you lose someone / he is treading the water near you.” The lost, those who cross over are always close, another insight of the mystic.
Finally, Luschei describes and dwells in the Arctic circle of distanced passion where the cardinal “hot as a cinder / burns out his alphabet in the icy drive.” Lanugaged, alphabet-driven and gifted, she combines opposite which results in paradox. She scrapes her “kabbala onto the windshield" This is a poetry somewhat based in eastern religions--Buddha, Kabbala, yet opening out into the vision of revelation as light which exists in both new and old testaments. She dreams the children of Sierra Leone come to her house after the image of those (who are they?) who came to her house “fasting / but the Brunswick stew: / country ham, black-eyed peas, onions, corn, squirrel and a whole bottle of ketchup” are gone. An elusive poem, it depicts the “alphabet in ice” which has been “Sculpted in snow” thus must go.
She envisions in “The Cardinal” letters which she carves with her breath. For her new life she must both “act fast” and “fast” an intelligent pun. She must “become the cardinal pecking frost. / My engine at last catches hold.” She drives to Lowe’s to “buy a feeder shaped like a bell / to remember the starved, the lost” and that is the most she can do. It is sufficient because encompassing the Arctic Circle it endures. Where “thistles blow” . . .”where the souls go” she dreams of snow holding the opal of heart till it warms.
Is Glenna Luschei’s poetry simple, crystalline, haiku-like short liens and stanzas encapsulating her vision? Or is it highly enigmatic, paradoxical, at times clear, and at others opaque? It is all of these: He glints “in the straw of life” (“The Emerald Tablet” p. 13). she is part of the Magnum Mysterium, Mysterium Tremendum and Mystery trembling, tenuous.
Over and over again, in direct yet strangely juxtaposed images se creates a crystal carol thru which the bodies of the beloveds, both living and departed, and the cherished earth can be seen in a glass snowball over which at last the blizzard of death binds, whirls. She does strange mysterious things such as “feeding Fish by Flashlight” (p. 9) Islands “skim the window” of her plane. Faith momentarily blots it out. And that is all we have. Quick pain can be tethered “quick pain / part of nature.” (Bare Root, p. 14)
Lynn Strongin's new book of poems, Short Visiting Hours for Children: Rembrandt's Smock, is forthcoming from Plain View Press, Austin, Texas. This review is a chapter from Strongin’s book Returning the Light: Portraits of Hidden Faith in Fourteen Contemporary Poets which is now seeking a publisher. A full introduction to Lynn Strongin is available at her website: http://members.shaw.ca/stronginweb/index.html