When a great artist creates something new and wonderful, it transforms the world. In DWELLING, in this rich collection of poems written by Aliki Barnstone, each word and verse will alter how your inner vision views the world. It is as if suddenly, you have awoken, from a deep dreamless sleep. And begin to see the invisible and brilliant sutras' binding together all of creation.
A sutra as we know, is a Sanskrit word that means string – thread – suture, that which sews or weaves together something. In this new collection of poetry, a reader may envision this as a tapestry of words and verses. Sutras may also be seen as a “discourse” or “teaching” in the literature of several sacred traditions. In the healing arts a sutra – suture, binds the flesh, bringing together the edges of a wound or incision that needs to heal.
Aliki Barnstone’s symbolic language does not contain itself to these metaphors only. The book’s title DWELLING, invokes the Ancient Greek word [ οίκος ] for house to engage poetic images of home – household – family – domicile – inheritance – intimacy. Summoning our deepest memories among the people and places where we truly live and move and have our being; our closest relationships with family and friends. Those whom we care about most in our life and the spaces we share together.
Even bringing to mind and memory this mystical passage from the Gospel of John: “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2 KJ21). Reminding the reader that there is a sacred dwelling place for us all. Just as, there is a spiritual indwelling, a place of many divine dwellings, moving mysteriously within us and the landscape of the soul.
DWELLING is offered to the reader in four literary segments, with pen and ink drawings by the poet gracing each one. Every poem and drawing stands as a single story, bearing witness to life. Some of these stories are deeply personal and intimate. Intimacy flows all through the work. Other poems are a sacred memory, a remembrance, a myth, a truth, a confession, an observer to the deeper magic and mystery dwelling within creation. Many of the poems name something or someone or some place.
Human beings have a name for nearly everything within the world, across all our languages, especially family names. Names are an important part of who we are and where we come from originally. In this poem titled, NAME CHANGE, the poet reminds us that people are frequently demonized due to their faith or status as refugees and immigrants. She is reminding us of who we are as human beings, and the terrible things we may do to one another. Quite often, in the name, of a given faith – belief – ideology – fear; the idols and graven images of humankind.
It was my grandfather’s idea to change
the family name from Bornstein,
or burning stone in German,
to Barnstone, also meaning amber.
In 1912, he, his father, step-mother,
and all his siblings stood before a judge
in Auburn, Maine,
and Anglicized the vowels
within their name’s consonants to conceal
being Jews within their souls and behind the walls
(shades drawn to hide Shabbat candlelight.)
The gems’s classical name was electron,
“beaming sun,” yet the Heliades grief
made them poplars and their tears golden amber.
Two centuries before, the Emperor
Joseph the Second decreed that all Jews
and adopt a constant German surname.
Tax them and keep track of them like the rest
except keep the Jews humble.
No Jew may take the surname of a noble
or renowned family.
No Jew may keep
a name if someone complains it was his.
All circumcision books and all birth books
will be in German forever and ever.
The Jews will be registered, just as Jesus
was born in Bethlehem,
city of David,
where Joseph and Mary traveled to sign
the census decreed by Caesar Augustus.
Did the ancestors know the parallel--
register to be taxed (and rounded up later)--
when they chose lovely names: apple or pear
tree, rose, gold leaf, green field, or blooming valley.
My jeweler Zaide was a great magician
with diamonds, so I am told.
in 1788, our ancestors
had been able to afford Diamond--
the hardest stone, dispersing spectral color--
would my grandfather have heard the brilliant name
and would he have chosen for us
Davies, Day, or even plain Smith instead?
Every time I look down at my left hand,
the ring he gave my grandmother:
a platinum setting shaping a sun.
The diamond conceals
until, awakened by rays, it bursts
into rainbows and stars scattered on the walls
all around me:
the covenant with Noah:
God will never annihilate us again.
The final line is more than a promise here, a new covenant with humankind, it is a reminder that God loves us all. And yet, it is also a warning to humanity. What we do, or do not do, matters. God cannot protect humanity from its own self-hatred and fear. We must learn to displace such hatred and fear with compassion and hospitality. We must practice a radical openness towards one another that takes us beyond all faiths – beliefs – fears. We must reveal the diamond’s light, as the – fire within / until, awakened by rays, it burst into rainbows and stars.
In a poem to her father, POETRY GAME, the poet shares another memory. The poem is a Father's Day offering that gives us a glimpse of their summertime creative lives, spent together as a family in Vermont. You must read it more than once to taste the richness of the poet’s language, spoken in the innocent tongue of a child, expressed in wonderment. And that is where we will leave you today, with these words, in a state of wonderment.
—for Dad and Blanche
I could eat the words,
if one were “strudel.”
If it were “cheese,”
I couldn’t stop myself
recalling my friends’ birthday parties,
how the farmer takes a wife,
the choosing game, and my shame
to be the homely cheese
standing alone on a braided rug
breathing in sour smells,
not the savory thyme and oregano,
not the sweet
almond, filo, and honey
of our home, my father
leaning down to read
of scrawls and doodles.
he’d ask, fountain pen poised,
“What kind of bird?”
“Chickadee,” I’d say,
Their names were their songs.
his black and white head
at home in daylight,
I could see when he sang,
his sharpened beak writing
letters that disappeared the instant
they were formed on air.
Whippoorwill I knew to be
a homely bird
who sings only in the dark,
in a thorny locust or fragrant pine
so beautiful, a little
mournful. But why
the mean picture:
whip poor Will?
I tried to think of another pun
less punishing. If I wrote “flowers,”
I understood to cross it out
before Dad questioned the word, unless
it were a verb or arranged,
a bunch of flowers I’d picked
in our field, dried up in a homely jar.
I’d say “tiger lilies,” seeing
their orange blooming
around the boulder where water pooled
after a storm.
I’d say “hollyhocks”
because when I crossed
our dirt road to find Blanche Bleikhart,
I passed their sunny faces
and tall stalks propped up against
her weathered clapboard home,
her drunk husband
bellowing behind the walls.
I’d say “marigolds,” “pansies,”
“poppies,” and “petunias,”
because she’d be kneeling in the dirt,
a hymn to the Green Mountains
spread above her,
a velvet veil across the temple
of sky. She looked up
and spoke with me,
murmuring to calico
kittens winding round her ankles
as she weeded and harvested.
I’d say “Jack-in-the-Pulpit,”
holy and purple, appearing
in sheltered groves, because
the bark peeled away from birches
reminded me of the lines
of dark earth on her knuckles,
and she gently placed some seed pods
in my young palm,
a simple homily.
Because bordering the rows of homely beans,
squash, peppers, and tomatoes,
my elderly friend raised the companion
flowers I’d later learn
keep pests away from our food--
and someday I’d grow
to be an old lady, gifted
with a green thumb
and sunflowers three times as tall
as I stand, shaded by a straw hat.
SAINT JULIAN PRESS BOOK REVIEW
Written by Ron Starbuck
Aliki Barnstone is a poet, translator, critic, editor, and visual artist. Her visual art has appeared in New Letters and Tiferet. She is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently, Dwelling (Sheep Meadow, 2016), Bright Body (White Pine, 2011) and Dear God Dear, Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow, 2009), and the translator of The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation (W.W. Norton, 2006). Her first book of poems, The Real Tin Flower (Crowell-Collier, 1968), was published when she was 12 years old, with a forward by Anne Sexton. In 2014, Carnegie-Mellon University Press reissued her book, Madly in Love, as a Carnegie-Mellon Classic Contemporary.
Her awards include a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in Greece, the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry, and a residency at the Anderson Center at Tower View. She serves as Poet Laureate of Missouri and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri.
To learn more, please go to www.alikibarnstone.com.
Sheep Meadow Press