When Images and Words Meet and Sing
MOONLIGHT ON THE RIVER By Deborah Kovacs. Pictures by William Shattuck Viking, 32 pp., $13.99.
GRATITUDE TO OLD TEACHERS By Robert Bly. BOA Limited Editions 21 pp., $75 leatherbound $7 paper.
IT'S hard to step out of my salt-water river. Walking back along hot sands, I realize that I could write a poem, or that I'm already in one. And as the waves cover my feet, I think I might be walking through a children's picture book.
For me, they're both poetry. The only difference is that one relies more on illustrations, the other more on imagery. I can't remember how many times I've gone to the children's section of a bookstore in search of inspiration for my poetry writing.
My favorite books are those that tell a story but don't give away all the answers. As with a good poem, you have to go back again and again. You have to look at the subtle detail, the shadows and the moods created by the artist. You savor the writer's words. You appreciate the new worlds that he or she has created with a few pen strokes.
Last year, I taught a poetry class for a small group of women in Ithaca, N.Y. On the first night, we talked about the fact that poetry is a form of play, and that, historically, in the literature of every country poetry appeared before prose did. Poetry is closer to the rhythms of speech. It's more primitive, more natural. We discovered that writing a poem was a childlike activity.
It's no coincidence that certain picture books and certain kinds of poetry work the same way. Instead of being two different genres, they're more like two sides of the same coin.
A children's book called "Moonlight on the River," written by Deborah Kovacs and illustrated by William Shattuck, tells the story of Ben and Will, two brothers who sneak out of their house one night when the moon is full. They untie their parents' sailboat and make their way toward a distant cove filled with bluefish. Along the way they encounter a great blue heron and fireflies, and when they reach the cove everything looks strangely different to them. The fish that circle below are inviting yet mysteri ous.
After an hour without a nibble, Ben falls asleep and Will guides the sailboat out of the cove and back toward home. The tide is turning, and then the rain comes.
In the midst of a violent storm, a sailboat appears, and on it is a man in rain gear. The stranger guides Ben and Will to a safe inlet and then disappears.
As dawn approaches and the storm dies, the boys notice a tree, a landmark that will help them find protection in the future. The brothers sail home, and there a bluefish tugs on one of their lines. The story ends with the boys back in their beds and their mother noticing the fish on the floor as she comes to wake them.
It's hard to believe that the illustrations in "Moonlight on the River" are charcoal. They are so evocative that the reader knows instinctively how to respond. But while the pictures have a certain effortlessness to them, they are carefully constructed. In the opening scene, Will is asleep, and in his hand is a book about sailing. On the book's cover is the figure of a man - the same man who later leads the boys to safety.
What the illustrations can't accomplish, the text does. Simple and crisp, Kovacs's word choice adds a new dimension to the imagery and keeps the plot moving. In some sense it is essential glue - toning down the pictures and acting as a cohesive background.
The first time I read this story, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the Deep Image poetry of Robert Bly. (Deep Image poetry relies on very paired down language to create a universal quality, which in turn allows the images to resonate with power.) I thought particularly of the four-line gem "Watering the Horse," one of Bly's earlier poems. The poem reads: "How strange to think of giving up all ambition! Suddenly I see with such clear eyes/ The white flake of snow/ That has just fallen in the hor se's mane!"
As with "Moonlight on the River," the "pictures" in this poem are the most crucial element, but the direct statement in the first line binds everything together. It heightens the effect of the image by providing "text" - completing the speaker's experience. Yet at the same time, it challenges the reader's expectations by placing realization before the experience that evokes the realization. Bly turns everything upside down, but the effect, somewhat mysterious and otherworldly, is exactly right.
Bly's newest collection of poems works much the same way, in effect acting as a picture book for adults. Called "Gratitude to Old Teachers," the 15-poem volume is a tribute to the people who have most influenced him: his father, poets he's known, and poets whose work has profoundly shaped his own. It's a simple concept, and many of the images he uses - like fire and water - are simple as well.
But like the creators of "Moonlight on the River," Bly knows how to transform the simple into the sophisticated. In the title poem, he uses the image of ice:
When we stride or stroll
across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they
have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked.
But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our
The image is surprising and unsettling, in part because it evokes a response more intuitive than logical. The implied associations strike a common nerve. Because of this, like some of Shattuck's charcoal pictures, the image may seem more "real" than people would like. Bly works on adult readers by first working on their more childlike perceptions.
Every poem in this book relies on some combination of word pictures and direct statements. The most successful poems, however, are those that tell a complete story and make exposition and insight the servants of imagery. They are also those that include some kind of water image.
In "Early Snow," Bly creates a calm landscape. The first four lines read:
It is snow, silence, the white
How sweet the soul feels
with its heavy branches,
Weighted down by the snow,
and no need to shake
There will be more snow,
more silence, more white
The scene is simply rendered yet full. Even if there were not four more lines to follow, a reader would feel satisfied. But just as a good text strengthens good illustrations, the implied statements here (the subtext) say a lot about peace and the natural world. Intuitive readers will understand that beyond what we see, there is a larger force in control and creating harmony. Even if that harmony seems fleeting, "This moment is already sweet, already gone," as Bly later says, it is worth recording and re membering.
The biggest difference between picture books and poetry is the order of events. Readers know when to expect the conflict in a children's book, and they know the story will be resolved by the last page. Poetry is not that predictable. The greatest sense of resolution in "Gratitude to Old Teachers" comes about halfway through, in a striking poem called "Mourning Pablo Neruda." The poet begins by making the statement that "Water is practical,/ especially in/ August."
As the poem develops, the speaker learns that water is essential to life, both as drink and as metaphor. Unlike the dead, who do not come back, water does, yet water also goes past: "always closer/ to where/ it has to be." In the final lines, the speaker knows that:
No one lays flowers
on the grave
for it is not
Despite their differences, both "Moonlight on the River" and "Gratitude to Old Teachers" come from the same source. Both books deal with beauty, the struggle to overcome the natural world, and the challenge of discovering inner strength. Both recognize and value the mysteries to be found around us. And on the most basic level, both are exciting: They satisfy the imagination and force readers to sit up, to feel a bit scared. Ultimately, they remind us what it's like to feel really alive.