by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
Image Makers in Photography and Poetry
Tibet: Culture on the Edge
(Rizzoli New York, 2011)
Ethnographic, environmental, and aesthetic—this book is a triple win. Photographer Phil Borges returned to Tibet after 15 years to make this panoramic portrait of a people and place that are drastically changing. Intimate portraits, luminous landscapes, and religious structures are paired with poignant, dignified commentary.
The devastating message of this haunting book concerns climate change. In the introduction, Borges states, “The Tibetan plateau is heating up twice as fast as the global average.” Think on this: Glaciers from the “roof of the world” supply most of Asia’s water.
Still, urgency is balanced with serenity. Bright eyes and cheery smiles grace many of Borges’s endearing subjects. These people aren’t frozen in Shangri-La, though.
Cell phones and motorbikes allow yak-herding nomads to update an ancient regimen. And signs of worry about flooding (as well as desertification) are etched in stoic expression. Sad and surreal, a horse stands in a wet field.
Informed by animism and Buddhism, the Tibetan way of life has been a beacon to many Westerners since the Beats embraced it. By way of meditation and to offer blessings, Buddhists circle sacred spots. Borges explains their circular worldview and champions it as a sustainable alternative to our linear notion of progress.
Borges hopes his chromatically radiant, vital document sounds alarms and helps preserve aspects of a vanishing existence—a noble and ennobling vision.
Waifs and Strays
(City Lights, 2011)
The waifs and strays in the title could actually refer to Micah Ballard’s wayward lines as they drift in and line up. It isn’t about “making” but “moving.” Meaning is accrued through an accretion of interstices that capture “those out of the way places that secure their own escape.” Resilient insistence on nuance leads to bold patterns of identity.
Highly stylized, fairly experimental, and original, the poems rely on sequential “disruption” underpinned by a solidly smoldering focus. The thematic transference of significance becomes a mantra of sustenance amidst an arranged wilderness, “It is all imagined, anchored by the word.”
If Ballard were a composer, this line from “Hailing a Luxor” would help explain how he writes his “scores:” “There should always be a score or at least a looming hook-up to balance the opposites.” The narrator tries to navigate the day but “the codes keep changing.” Zeroing in, he finds: “Different track, same diss.”
An ancient, optimistic wisdom surfaces as Ballard charts the singular course of poetry. “To wake alone / is to lie in bed with everything.”
“Night School” perfects the notion of the solitary artist struggling at his craft. Ballard’s voice is perspicuous and commanding as he navigates the “off hours” and refines the experience of communing.
“Isn’t it about conveying / a spirit into an image / and speaking through it […]?” Ballard nails vapor trails to the page.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
Devin Johnston takes you with him when he goes down Route M or ambles along the shores of Iona, the sacred island. His anecdotal veneer is studded with a luxurious lexicon. He knows his fescue and forbs and sprinkles the landscape with precision terminology. “From a hump / of high withers / a ridge descends / to a moist rhinarium.”
Capturing the excitement of new places, Johnston paradoxically stirs up a sense of ease and belonging. He is so in sync with nature on his journeys that he practically wears locations like we wear clothes. The title poem offers an example, opening with a flourish and showcasing his trademark, avant rhyme.
“From the foot of Cotopaxi / and across the Gulf // a Blackburnian warbler / follows a pulse.” Johnston pushes sound like few contemporary writers can or care to, producing tensile intensity in columns of lines that scan beautifully. Only very occasionally does the predictability of end-rhyme as a strategy detract.
“Tangled Yarn” is a marvelous portrait of a dragonfly. Playing off the title’s double meaning, couplets reiterate colorful, commonplace names. Notice the sophisticated alliteration: “darning needle, dancer, / meadow hawk or glider.” The final couplet switches from a four-beat line to five, adding surprise to the equation: “water naiad, threadtail, // sylph or sprite or penny nail.”
Ultimately, Traveler is about life’s passages and the quest for identity and community. This gifted wordsmith offers us a precious passport.