The Burning Eaves

by David Manicom
ISBN: 0889822026

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A Review of: The Burning Eaves
by Richard Carter

David Manicom benefits from a sensitive ear and an imaginative intelligence. While, Like Heighton, Manicom has done some translating. The Burning Eaves includes a powerful rendering of "The Convex Mirror" by Yves Bonnefoy. Like Bonnefoy, Manicom can arrange images to develop thoughts. Here are the first two stanzas of Manicom's translation of Bonnefoy:

"Look at them, there at the crossroads,
Who seem to hesitate, who set out again.
The child runs before them: they have gathered
In great armfuls for the few vases
Those meadowland flowers which have no names.

And the angel who watches them is above,
Enveloped in the gale of his colours.
One arm is bare in the red stuff of air
As if he holds a mirror, as if the earth
Is reflected in the water of this other shore."

This is poetry secure in its own power. There's no hurry in the lines, no attempt to impress, no focus on anything except its own underlying conviction. The angel-a symbol of human creativity?-lives "enveloped in the gale of his colours" and "holds a mirror" reflecting reality in the "other shore" of the imagination. Meanwhile, people every day gather experiences, "those meadowland flowers", but these experiences "have no names" until the imagination's workshop fashions them into something intelligible. Without the imagination's expression,

"It grows dark among the rumour of dry leaves
That are made to move upon the flagstonesBy a wind that does not know, from room to room,
By a wind that does not know, from room to room,
What have names, and what are simply things.

. . . In the rooms
They will place the flowers close to the mirror
That might consume, that might preserve."

Manicom suggests the wind with "the rumour of dry leaves" and gives you the feeling of its movement simply by postponing the commas until the third line and allowing the metre in the first two lines to move without hindrance. This feeling matches the thought at the poem's crux. Without the vigour of human activity, the world becomes empty, and people succumb to the blank wind of natural processes that see no difference between "what have names" (and therefore meaning) and "what are simply things". Art, as a convex mirror, re-arranges reality, making it seem larger and more important than it normally appears.
Besides rhythmic ease and visual care, Manicom's poems in this book contain many examples of thoughts sprouting from natural images. Some poems stand out. One poem sequence, called "Tal", explores the symbolic value of this word (from the Burushaski language spoken in Pakistan). Unlike most English words, tal can mean a variety of things: "a bird, the roof of your mouth, a grass in the fields, a birch tree . .. . or motionless water". In other words, the word is a lexical prism through which one can sense nature's interdependence and unity. Here is the third section of the sequence:

"High on the terraced hillsides of Swat
We sat in the cloud lap while apricot

Blossomed like slow snow in the valleys
And spring undid the streambeds' silver laces.

We breathed the air of the great circle
Until, as I reached to furrow your hair,
My hand brushed the face of the Hindu Kush.
In that drunk hum of air a hollow lurched

As you laughed and arched and the wind wheeled.
"Touch me," you said, "a grass in the field.""

As in his Bonnefoy translation, Manicom deftly reveals a natural process by letting the first four lines run unimpeded. How striking is the phrase "And spring undid the streambeds' silver laces"! The sibilance captures marvellously the abundant eagerness of mountain streams, from the initial loosening at the beginning of the line to the tumbling foam in the final words. Set in the Swat valley in Pakistan, the poem contrasts the close-up intimacy of the narrator and his partner with the distant spaciousness of the valley "lurching" beside them and the looming mountain range of Hindu Kush. Any fear the mountains might cause is dispelled in the ease of the final two lines. Although the mountains loom, the streams run free and the wind "wheels"; although, in other words, nature's power is beyond our control, we are part of nature like "a grass in the field", and can trust in its providence. The whisper of the final rhyme ("wheeled"/"field") emphasises this unity.
One problem with this book is that while daily life may brim with surface details, but poetry happens when writers unearth the general facts that underlie these details. We all experience differently. But listen hard enough to the personal fact and you hear the universal one. Manicom's lush descriptions sometimes cloak their lack of substance. Take this excerpt as an example:

"We let fall our lenten sacrifice soon after lunch.
I find you just out of the tub, hunched to brush
Your hair willowing toward the floor, breasts bare,
A towel saronged without care around your waist
Like Gaugin's Western image of the East. Homage
Overdue, I first rummage for the toothpaste
But catch ghosted voices of the VCR
Accounting for the kids, and slowly restore
The curve of your stooping back with fingertips
Fluting your spine, with lips and palms and arms-
Until you dash out of the warm mist
And duck back in with a condom, turn the lock."
- David Manicom, from "Fast"

David Manicom's lines lack intimacy and substance. He's describing a lovemaking scene-"hair willowing to the floor"-without offering up any of the complicated or deeper feelings that might underlie it. He seem caught between the sudden awe that inspires poems and the distracted self that pens them.

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