MONICA MANOLACHI Reviews
He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs by Leonard Gontarek
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2013)
It is not a coincidence that about two years ago I translated a poem entitled “Contact” by Leonard Gontarek into Romanian. It was for Contemporary Literary Horizon, a literary magazine based in Bucharest. It starts: “Where the hell did you learn how to drive?” It sounds like an American movie, doesn’t it? It is. It is not a coincidence that Leonard Gontarek likes Andrei Codrescu’s award winning debut collection, License to Carry a Gun (1970). It is not a coincidence that He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs (2013) is on my desk now and I am perusing it, trying to select some fragments and to find some plunder in a book whose cover shows the stiff body of an angel-winged woman, half in a white car, half outside it... What? Why? “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous,” said Einstein or “coincidence is a messenger sent by truth,” says Jacqueline Winspear or “coincidences mean you’re on the right path,” says Simon Van Booy. One day, the concept of coincidence will probably turn into a pattern of communication between all things existing in the universe. We are just a bit slow at the moment and do not know how to name all the idiosyncratic experiences we are going through.
Leonard Gontarek published several books of poetry including St. Genevieve Watching Over Paris (1984) and Déjà Vu Diner (2006). His poems have also been featured in Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry (2006) and in Best American Poetry (2005). The collection He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs (2013) includes six sections of poems grouped according to no particular criterion. Haphazard and Willy-Nilly are the main characters of this book, who gracefully drive their partially visible vehicle along the coast of Juxtapositions, in search for Metamorphosis.
The roles of writing poetry and of being a poet usually function as a type of connection between an individual and the social environment, which can channel necessary messages that can better articulate a sense of belonging between the individual and the cultural. The poem “Hunger” clearly states that, by hinting at the power of Poetry to change the status of its “employees”:
I have been laid off from Poetry.
I beg on the street. Can you help me get some food?
No, not money, do my shopping, I hate shopping.
Twilight makes a fence along the cemetery.
In window of music store, they’ve built a house of cards
From Philip Glass’ new CD, Music For Cleaning Apartments.
It starts to snow.
The poem plays upon the dichotomy of belonging and non-belonging to Poetry. Non-belonging is expressed by being dismissed from the institution that Poetry has become and probably from what is already well-known about it, while belonging is whispered in between the lines by the attention paid to anything that may be seen as divergent: poetry and shopping, a house of cards and the cleaning of apartments, the cemetery and the music store, the verbs to build and to snow etc. Leaving mainstream Poetry behind and starting anew, from scratch, may not be easy, but it sounds like an attempt to better understand what one should write about. Instead of resting on one’s laurels or of approaching comfortable topics, one is invited to make sense of our lives and problems and of the silent revolutions that increasingly assault us from many sides.
A similar theme is covered in the poem “Hymn”. The interval of “25 years” Gontarek writes about may sound commonplace, but it also overlaps the internet boom, an increasing level of international migration and cultural hybridity, as well as the globalization of feelings that started at the turn of the millennium:
I have been a poet for 25 years.
I am stepping out, just now, for stamps.
Terrorists pull up in a silver Mercedes—
the newer, American model—spray Uzis in my direction.
I fall to the ground, riddled with doubt.
The first two lines of this modern chant reiterate the main idea of the previous poem. New types of poetry are needed, which can tackle the radical changes of communication brought about by technologic development, immense amounts of knowledge at hand, the democratization of the internet access and their effects on individuals and communities. The ending line, with its transformative double meaning of dying and trying to survive, suggests just that: be riddled with doubt, do not take everything for granted and do not snooze and wait for terrorists to come and wake you up. Human history shows that there are better alarm clocks than terrorism.
In this context, poets like Emily Dickinson should be revisited and studied following more adequate approaches and not simply admired like untouchable fashion stars. The poem “Mystery” debunks the myth of the transcendentalist poet of the nineteenth century known as a secluded writer:
Emily Dickinson didn’t leave the house for 32 years.
I’m not so sure. Didn’t the neighborhood boys taunt her?
Try to lure her out, because they were, you know, boys.
Hey Emily, your poetry sucks! Emily Dickinson is a hermit crab!
What happens after the dark is doused? It’s still dark in the Dickinson house!
Miss Dickinson sleeps with the delivery boy!
Didn’t she storm out the door, rush down the steps
as they scattered like cats, and find herself, broom in hand, in the backyard,
and think, as evening cooled, the first star surfaced,
“This isn’t what I thought at all, contrariwise, this is rather nice.”
Didn’t they, huh, didn’t they?
If Emily Dickinson’s meditations were suitable for her age, it does not mean that they are suitable for any age in any context. Living in seclusion, as the contemporary poet suggests, has gained other meanings nowadays, when the number of the world population has increased so much in comparison with that from the time when Dickinson lived.
The same boyish attitude from the poem above can be identified in “Study / Violet”, which deals with the temporal spot when good and evil can turn into each other. Exploring the patterns of how these changes happen is probably one of the aspects of human life that generations after generations still need to learn about by introspection, self-questioning and reflection.
The snow that appears violet, later, in a photo,
now lights up all of the night.
Dark is not an enigma. We are the enigma.
We carry the moon from the well
to the door of the house.
Evil is made to sit in the corner, silent.
A child. Milk. It spills across the floor, moonlight.
The cat licks up the truth, fast as it can. The cat loves the child.
Innocence and experience are contrasted here to suggest that truth may be relative. What is true in certain conditions may not be true in other conditions. Take “dark”, for example, which many are afraid of due to the now almost old-fashioned fossilized cultural history that considers “light” as superior and desirable. The development of the black race and the discovery of the cosmos over the past centuries have modified our mindsets regarding the meaning of “dark”. Not all children are scared of the dark. Those who are scared are because of certain reasons. Which are these reasons? That’s the question. “We are the enigma” implies the “dark” exists inside us as well. When we speak or sing or cry, the dark is visible in our mouths. Food for thought.
Monica Manolachi is a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her doctoral thesis, Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry, in 2011. Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation. As a poet, she has published two collections in Romanian and was awarded a prize for poetic eloquence by the American Cultural Center in April 2005. She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.