The beautiful cover image for this book of poetry—a painting by an artist named Linda Okazaki—features an animal, probably a fox, alone on a bridge over a vast expanse of water, with trees and mountains in the distance under an orange-red sky. There is a mythical quality to this painting that matches the energy of the best poems in Stan Sanvel Rubin’s There. Here. In this fourth full-length book by Rubin, I find an author who sometimes muses about life in direct, observant narratives and, at other times, offers images with the compression of Zen koans.
The two poems that open the book are titled with one of the two words of Rubin’s succinct title. “There” has this great, bold beginning: “In that century, nothing much happened,” and goes on to describe how there weren’t plagues, violence, “drought or dogma” in that unnamed far-away time. “There” ends with the narrator deciding that “It was pretty boring, really, this imaginary / century” which was “cursed only by remaining ignorant / of how terrible any day can be, how unforgettable.” I see Rubin implying that we tell ourselves stories about the past that gloss over the real experience of living, of how challenging the present moment can be. “Here” arrives at that challenge and includes the reader in its tumble of beautiful, dark imagery:
When we wake, we are a morning of despair.
We comb our hair out with crumbs,
we suck sleep from long spoons
until dizziness takes us back to the dream
we walk through all day. If we head up,
we go down. If we go down, we go
all the way down, to basements we didn’t realize
and farther. We step on stairs made of bodies,
an escalator of ruin keeps us moving.
The dream-like music of this poem continues for several more lines before swerving around with something like humor at the poem’s end: “Surely someone / will recognize our innocence, and love us.” This theme of looking for surprises amidst the struggles of daily living is one that seems central to the six sections of There. Here.
As a sequence, I was particularly struck by the second group, which features thirteen poems with titles such as “Beach in War Time,” “Coyote in War Time,” “Neighbors in War Time,” “Pine Nuts in War Time.” They are each stark encounters with ways “war time” is and isn’t present in daily life for those who are not in the field of battle. The war is outside of the direct content of these poems, yet its presence lingers above in the titles. The narrator of “Mail in War Time” is relieved at the “customary cheer” of the daily delivery of catalogs and other unnecessary items: “The little truck is good to see, / weaving the houses / into place.” That sparse line ends this short poem with a resonance that comes from selecting less words to suggest more than what is on the page—in a time askew with fighting and uncertainty, the familiar postal truck becomes an anchor. Sometimes the suggestion of violence invades the imagery, as in “Radishes in War Time”: “Bright little bombs, hard / as knuckles of the dead / under a collapsing sky.” Mainly, these poems are threaded with quiet observations and deep listening to what’s happening in a world linked by an amorphous “war time.” This line from “Conversations in War Time” feels more expansive each time I have re-read the poem: “There are lives everywhere / despite the essential silence.”
The variety of life that Stan Rubin hears comes across in how his subject matter comfortably combines observations of phenomena such as crows, mosquitos, a field in winter with a range of perspectives on human emotions. In “Nasty,” the narrator wishfully admits that “The crows brawl the way men / want to, loud, arrogant, yet / in control.” I think this poet also achieves a certain range in his writing by using a full spectrum of points of view: sometimes there is a third person observer-narrator; at other times, the narrator is in first person or a combination of first and second, or only second (“You walk in snow and leave tracks / and the tracks follow you as far as you go” begins “What’s Possible in Winter”); and a few times toward the end, the “we”—so prominent in the earlier poem “Here”—makes fleeting appearances. One of my favorites in this collection, called “The Education of the Animals,” has a point-of-view switch that speeds through primate evolution: “They start to imagine us.” Now they (we), “sit all day in airless cubicles / the width of branches,” and “Music keeps them going the way hunger used to.”
I enjoyed that music often kept these poems moving along, sometimes in long spools of punctuated phrases and at other times with short, sparse lines. Here are narrative poems that are often centered on the challenges and elusive mysteries of life, some of which really stopped me in my tracks and led to rewarding re-readings.