Whitmore Press, 2016.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton.
Carmen Leigh Keates’s Meteorites plays a polyphonic tune comprised of the ethereal elements of smoke, water, and dreams. Yet this otherworldly melody is grounded by a solid rhythm of rock, from the meteorite of its title to the rauks of the Fårö coastline and the boat-shaped graves and burial cairns of Gotland.
In “Smoke Talk” (after Bergman’s film Persona), two women gradually merge into one another as cigarette smoke blooms from one woman’s mouth while speech emerges in a delayed reply from the other woman’s mouth: “In their night conversations / cigarette smoke drifts above the subtitles as / another line of language.” This language of smoke is not always clear or audible, as when the poet observes “those who take mute cigarettes / in the glass smoking room” at an airport departure gate in the rich, rewarding poem “The Dogs of God.” The poet is alive to the tiny details of the scene: “I see no smoke / and there is no door,” she says, as “behind the glass, all smoke / makes off through the canopy / before it even exists.” The smoke evaporates along with its meaning. Like smoke, language is elusive and liable to drift away into air: “Yes is a vapour if it remains unspoken.”
Smoke, for Keates, is complexly metaphoric. It is a kind of living miasma or spirit that emerges from the mouths of witches who dance around and leap over riverside campfires in “Tall Pagan.” Smoke is the essence that becomes “a God that floats like pollen and must be gathered / to the heart through ritual movements.” Then, in “Nostalghia,” the character Gorchakov is “in danger. / He can be both / inhaled and blown away.” In this way, smoke is as transient as mortality: symbolic of the frail, fleeting life-spirit that flows through our lungs until we take our last breath.
Water, too, seeps through the cracks of the craggy surface of these meteoric poems. It is another symbol of life and vitality and the cyclical nature of being. The “ice-plants” and “ice-rain” of “Cloud on Mount Wellington” flow once more into “a snow-melt waterfall” from which the poet fills her water bottle: a kind of elixir of life or a liquid muse and, “like breath made visible by the cold,” art emerges from the mouth of a dream figure of a writer who reveals “something he knew to be right” even before it was fully formed.
Dreams are vivid and sometimes disturbing in these poems, boding war and destruction as a train runs along a track with its carriages all on fire just as often as they portend creation and artistry. But, in “Burning Train,” the death-seeking inertia of “sleep paralysis” gives way to the certainty that “We are always here, walking” even as the tension of the nightmare is not quite resolved.
In the masterful final poem of the collection, “Nostalghia,” the question as to where accents come from at first is answered with “It must be something in the rocks” and, suddenly and rightly, dream merges with water, smoke, and rock to coalesce into a crescendo of poetic brilliance. “All the water in this film / is actually voice / that has decomposed” and it seeps through the rocks and the roof of the character Domenico’s house “even when it is not raining,” eventually solidifying: “Gorchakov’s old memory / is animated and it transitions through states.” The liquid that is “distilled from his country / is in his blood” and, at the moment of expiration, when he succumbs to a heart attack, “it is the gas of his country / that drifts from his mouth.” Life is in the land.
Indeed, all existence springs from the rocks. It seeps out in liquid form to be ingested by the writer-artist-poet and it is exhaled into language and song while we live and breathe until we take our final breath and return to the soil: the disintegrated rock from which we arose.
Keates’s remarkable, highly anticipated collection is an absolute joy to read. Although this is only a small collection of eighteen short lyrics, it is as spare and sparse as the misty moors and rugged, treeless coastlines inhabited by the characters of Bergman’s and Tarkovsky’s films, with no word wasted. If you only read one book of poetry this year, Meteorites should be it.