David Ray of THE POEM IN TIME OF WAR by Sherman Pearl (Conflu:X Press,
2004, 96 pp., $12.00)
Justly praised by Sam Hamill and Mel Weisburd, Sherman Pearl's THE POEM
IN TIME OF WAR is a bold and exuberant collection of poems, including
work that won an award from the prestigious Strokestown Poetry Festival
As a poet against the war Sherman Pearl in many poems adds his indignation
to that of others who fear that our nation has strayed so far from its
ideals that the world reflected in his happier poems of boyhood, travel,
and appreciation of the arts and media may be in jeopardy, its restlessness
and anomie reflected in violence and disillusion.
"Bodyslam" catches a bloody TV match as if it is truly a fight
between good and evil "in glorious color," the observer seduced
into cheering for both grapplers in their "savage ballet."
Pearl is a poet of movement. Many of his poems reflect restlessness, a
fantasy life roaming or soaring through or recalling many modes of travel.
The titles reflect the theme of "In Motion is Possibility":
I packed light;
fit in my pockets I'd pick up
way. I could carry whole countries
in my eyes,
their flavors in my mouth
leaving my hands free to stroke the silks
bazaars, to grope through
back streets, to scoop up women
dance flamencos on my palms.
"Swimming to Catalina" or driving big rigs or riding bicycles
or recalling "Immigrants" or even leaving earth as a space traveler
are variant expressions of the poet's enthusiastic commitment to movement,
no doubt symptomatic of anxiety, but potentially liberating.
"Watching Others in Motion" is inevitable for a traveler with
habits of sharp observation. In motion, of course, "Accidents Happen":
Home itself is an accident. You met your mate
as she happened
past on her way
else. Together you've built a house¼
The less challenging chore of "Sweeping the Attic" is welcome
respite from journeys where one sooner or later is obliged to engage in
¼ You take all the turns
plod the streets till they become dead ends.
too dark to read the signposts
out the matchbook. By match-light you check the address.
for a carpet to carry you home.
Pearl has a sharp and informed view of history. "Hitler's Falcon"
is a poem that suggests that evil survives, hovering over us, throwing
shadows "on clouds that were formed by lingering smoke/ from the
death camps." Now that so much history seems to be repeated, bearing
out Thucydides' pessimism about men not learning from the past, such a
view seems easily justifiable, and somehow more acceptable through metaphor
than the didacticism that Pearl is wise enough to avoid.
"Soldiers Home" is a prophetic view of a nation which is inheriting
thousands of war casualties who must grieve their "obsolete lives"
even as they learn to crack hardy (an Australian term that means putting
a good face on that which is hard to bear). Despite the understated dark
view of the future Pearl's poems convey he never lets the child within
My face is pasted inside-
looking out on the world.
Pearl counterpoints his witnessing concerns with poems like "Geronimo"
(not about the Apache, but boys who yell the name in parachute play).
He can drive through Cuba in "my '56 Chevy, all chrome and cool and
Turtle Wax-" or stray through Wal-Mart where he finds poems on sale
(perhaps the last product monster stores might find marketable. Pearl
brings media events into vivid view, seemingly aware that Americans often
don't know the difference between fantasy and reality. His poems based
on memories of family members are intimate and moving:
I know how my grandfather felt
steerage leaning side to side
the ship, pressing backwards to stop it.
Sherman Pearl is not afraid to be a poet who has much to say, not a fashionable
activity in these days of passivity and a great deal of cultish poetry
that is irrelevant to history or even to intense personal experience.
He would not vote, I suspect, for "abolishing meaning," as is
taught in many academies.
I recommend THE POEM IN TIME OF WAR to readers who want to be entertained
and at the same time join a poet in his imaginary travels and in his anxieties
about the inescapable realities of war and "The Unthinkable,"
which was born at the original ground zero sixty years ago.
"and we darken under it wondering who
it up, who to implore
to put the
unthinkable back in its room.
Like Sherman Pearl, a contributor to Sam Hamill's anthology, POETS AGAINST
THE WAR, David Ray (who with Robert Bly founded American Writers Against
the Vietnam War) has published two recent volumes of poetry, 1000 YEARS:
POEMS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST (Timberline Press) and THE DEATH OF SARDANAPALUS
AND OTHER POEMS OF THE IRAQ WARS (Howling Dog Press). He lives in Tucson
with his wife, poet Judy Ray.