Inverse Sky by John Isles
(University of Iowa Press, 2008)
Painting an Inverse Sky by Looking Sidewards
Sharp, critical and energetic, John Isles has a very precise yet bold writing style. Nothing of an excess or exuberance, each descriptive detail of the landscapes that his poems portray — the modern California, its lost nature and city heritage — contains a a rather attractive modesty, as well as a singular purpose. Every work puts forth a social statement, addressing the changes which an American public space has experienced in the wake of modernisation. Credited as a “pilgrim-poet” (i.e. borrowing his own words, “To keep oneself a stranger and pilgrim,” p. 13), Isles writes as a traveler, a stranger who wishes to understand and lay bare the reality of each spot he passes by:
The truth went out
Wandering burnt hills in the pitch
With reeds in its pockets, a herd for the hoarding
Word goes out — it’s all over
I’ve been looking for you all over
(From “Dark Pastoral,” p. 23)
As a book, the overall layout is delicately organised and comprehensive. Titles that Isles has chosen are lyrical and visually telling; for instance, “Putting the Bird Back in the Sky,” “Desperate Tender,” “Send My Roots Rain,” “Notes toward a Social Realism,” “I Know If I Find You I Will Have to Leave the Earth,” “And When I Waked I Cried to Dream Again”… Already, each suggests music. Throughout, the theme of nature versus civilisation maintains a loyal coherencet that sifts between neutral observations of exterior happenings, and the poet’s invested emotions at specific moments. Often, Isles seeks comfort in addressing the city as his lover, an effective oratory device that renders naked his kaleidoscopic and nostalgic interior world:
City of conflicting desires, passing girl in whose eyes
hurricanes germinate. Gaze arcing from the wharf
to the come-hither gull-glide. As a maiden into a cloud
of mayflies — Marry I will, Marry I will —
swallowed by the assembly around a portable mountain.
The city of climbers threading an atmospheric eye.
(From “City of Our Making,” p. 16)
What I enjoy most as a reader is Isles’ ability to strike a stark contrast between what that is being evoked and what that is not. Stanza breaks have a silence, just as line spacings. Dashes, on the other hand, convey an image that reads like a sacred ambiguity, and therefore should stay “as it is” — unspecified, or leading towards somewhere else. In several of these works, there is a tendency to mythologize self, time and space. Once in a while, the writing turns dense, as Isles reveals an ugly landscape:
I forget my country, breaking into pieces —
the recently elected — branches downed in a gust —
monarchs unclotting — frenzied in the yard.
(From “The Arcadia Negotiations,” p. 44)
if not, a dark reflection that precedes:
After the Mexican War,
Vallejo surrenders to the Bear Flag Republic.
The mission burning and he is serving
wine and eggs and chorizo the Americans
who have come to arrest him. It is time
to move on — higher ground, or lower ground.
(From “The Arcadia Negotiations,” p. 38)
And yet it is precisely this “higher ground, or lower ground” that John Isles “walked up and down upon my own skin” (p. 59). He “never returned,” as he claims by way of concluding — from an inverse life.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain also publishes poetry and non-fiction under her nom-de-plume, Greta Aart. Also a musician, she is one of the editors of Cerise Press, and lives in Paris, France.