NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The Lost Country of Sight by Neil Aitken
(Anhinga Press, Tallahassee, FL, 2008)
All book covers tell a story and this one is no exception. This time it has nothing to do with “branding” -- it is something intensely personal which relates to the author himself. It is a painting called “Man Entering the Waves” by the artist C. L. Knight and it is based on a photograph of the wreck of the Peter Iredale on the coast of Astoria, Oregon, which the author took himself. The figure walking out toward the sea is his father who happened to move into the camera’s line of vision at the moment that the photograph was taken.
The poems in this collection inhabit an interior which is full of longing, the quest of the exile for home wherever that may be. They are poems that are always on the move. Most of them centre on the car which is almost used as a kind of vehicle for isolation from the outside world.
For the most part the journeys take place in winter. Aitken writes of Montana in the snow; of seeking shelter at minus 50 degrees; of horizontal rain, smog and wind. At various points he uses the weather to delineate an inner emotional state:
…….I am always heavy with grey,its sharp scent of longing.(Gift).
When he returns to Kaohsiung after a gap of years -
…………Everything feels strangeand yet familiar. I remain confused by the weather.(Leaving The Plane).
Landscapes, as if only half-remembered, are frequently indistinct:
I glimpse the darkening sky and a latenesswhich could be smog or a low mistblurring what might be mountains into rain.(Leaving The Plane).
These are poems that speak of the urge to go back in time -- to travel to one’s younger self. Like the women in their empty cars who pass him by in the dark, he wonders How far is it to home?
In many of the poems there is an air of sustained melancholy. Aitken speaks of blackened timbers, old wharves, the rusted frames of ships, peeling billboards, grey buildings and high-walled streets, of land only seen through mists.
I would have liked to have seen more variety in these pieces. They often circle the same territory and inhabit a colourless landscape. To a large extent it is possible to read across from one poem to the next. In this respect the book reads more like a novel with no particular poem standing out as an individual entity. It is a text written in the key of loss.
The poems in the final section of the book worked best for me. There is a greater depth to their intensity even though many of them continue to explore a rather narrow area of experience.
Kite Flying is a beautiful poem about longing and the make-believe of escape:
How it pulled heavenward into the insubstantial blueor circled twisting in the breeze, falling then rising again,always beyond reach…
He describes how his father
…………would stand gesturingas if calling a stray dog home or a cat from a tree. A secret spell,something only he knew to waken the creature in the sky,to send it running out to sea like an angry pike on a line, then returnexhausted to his hand. And when winds struck, it could seemas if the whole kite would burst with longing to leave the earth.
In The Country I Call Home is seminal to the entire collection. In it, Aitken says:
In me, there are as many countries as names.As many versions of the world.
There are the many countries of the imagination and there are the many countries that we inhabit through our own unique perceptions of experience. The way we see things and interpret them makes them individual and personal to us alone.
If there is a country, there are two countries.A double exposure. The other world ghosting the first.The second full of dark-haired strangers. Ink groundfrom charcoal pressed to stone. Hard as raw rice.If there are two countries, a third always rises….If there are three there must be a fourth…
The multiplication of countries referred to above takes on an almost scriptural context in Prodigal:
We want to see, but it is dark in here, in this small narrow world.It is dark always, then someone opens a door.Then another. Then another.There are more rooms than two in the world beyond.Somewhere her son is sleeping.
Memory and how we hold a memory is a central preoccupation of the text. Sight is also a significant factor. We see and then we commit what we see to memory. In The Art of Memory Aitken writes about Simonides of Creos, the Greek poet credited by Cicero as being the father of memory and memory systems. He tells how Simonides was able to recall the names of people at a banquet, table by table, who had been killed when the building had collapsed upon them making the identification of the bodies and impossibility.
These are quiet, thoughtful poems but they lack vibrancy and colour and their territory may be a shade too narrow to engage the general reader.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.