Weeds grow where they want to; not where they're told to...
A review by Constance Stadler
To understand the magnitude of artistry achieved in Voices from a Grave: Homage to Edgar Lee Masters, a familiarity with Spoon River Anthology is requisite. After reading Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, Masters took up the challenge to write a novel comprised of free verse, epitaph, and cynically tinctured realism to write his famous work. We meet such characters Columbus Cheney and Widow Mc Farlane and many more, all inhabitants of an Illinois graveyard, who respectively have their say.
Duane Locke takes this seminal premise and then far surpasses it, in the creation of a single character who in death seeks out their living identity, through musings, and encounters of a carnival of personae, only to realize and then ruminate on the meaning of identity ‘discovered’.
The book is a single work comprised of 13 poetic sections: Who was I when I was alive is the first. But the entire journey is both conceptually unmatched in the beauty of the writing of this legendary Master Poet.
He muses, in the beginning, on the dialog with a raindrop splattering on his headstone, and in doing so creates a tender, meaningful encounter.
But, raindrop, my darling,
I now have no eyelids,
I have no eyes,
I have only empty holes
Called “eye sockets,”
But I can see what I could not see when alive,
The exciting curves
Of your raindrop hips and thighs.
As we proceed through the consequence of rich suppositions about living selfhood (Troilus, Orozco, Ovid, Octavius …), we are enfolded in deep ontological insights and constantly reminded we are given ballerina-vision by the casual interplay of life and death as seen in: My bones are not a white rose.
I turned my skull towards the girl
Who said she was my wife for fifty years
And was named Penelope.
I thought it somewhat absurd
Turning my skull to look at her
When I had no eyes to see,
But even when dead it is difficult
To overcome lifelong habits.
She said her name was Penelope.
Was my wife for fifty years.
I could not be Odysseus,
For I would
never have tried
To find my home.
I would have stayed with Circe,
And lived a happy life
Rolling in the damp mud
As a pig.
History becomes a playground as much as mortality and the imagination of such metaphysics soars and sweeps us aloft.
We are uplifted by the contemplative richness as well as puckish humor of:
I once thought death would bring the tranquility
that Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius and Yang
Chu found when they were alive
In one short stanza we are transported from withering grief to a wink and a smile.
The agony of wanting Cressid so much
Is so torturous, so painful
That I would like to end the suffering
But the dead cannot commit suicide.
The theme of the tragedy of Troilus and Cressid becomes increasingly more profound and symbolic of what is most meaningful in the experience of being truly ‘alive’. We see this so clearly in: A white rose gone
I have strong feelings that I was
For I long for Cressid,
I desire Cressid.
I know she is in the arms of Diomed,
That she is having sex with Ajax,
But I am obsessed by her
Now that I am dead.
This voyage through realms of existence and non-existence are infused with many fantastic encounters, for example, with the four “blind-folded” Neo Platonists and then ‘a visit’ with not Isis but an American ‘novelist’, Carol Octnova. The contrast bedazzles:
The here was shut out,
So the four Neo-Platonist
Could contemplate without distraction
Of evil materiality, or the evil here,
I write best sellars. I have written
Sixty-four novels about swamp goddesses
In underwater Atlantis.
I am Carol Octnova. I am looking
For my husband, Ronn Cruson,
A lawyer for an insurance company
In Mobile, Alabama …
The final sections of the book deal with the multifold speculation of identity found and then lost again, leaving the reader with huge questions as to significance, meaning, reality. And we are deliberately left with deep self reflecting/refracting questions.
I learned today, although I am not
Certain what day it is. Time means
Nothing when one is dead, but
I heard this day was July 4, 2009.
I died a long time ago, a long time ago.
And all of this, all of this concludes on, perhaps, the profoundest question of all:
Perhaps, I was Troilus.
Where, where, are you, Cressid.
With over 6,300 hundred poems in print, this 15th book of Duane Locke’s becomes essential reading, for his genius transforms an ‘homage’ to a profound meditation which in sheer poetic brilliance and philosophical richness far surpasses the honoree. For those who intimately know Locke’s work this is not at all surprising from the pen of the greatest living poet extant. As such, this book is a human and humane imperative.
Constance Stadler: contributing editor to Eviscerator Heaven and Review Editor for Calliope Nerve. Author: Tinted Steam (Shadow Archer Press), Sublunary Curse (Erbacce) and an eBook, Paper Cuts (Calliope Nerve). Her most recent work appears in such 'zines as BlazeVox, ditch, ken*again, Pen Himalaya, Rain Over Bouville, Clockwise Cat, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Hanging Moss, Neonbeam, and Gloom Cupboard. She has been recently ‘Featured Poet’ for the Guild of Outsider Writers, Counterexample Poetics and The Poetry Warrior.