Box of Light/Caja de Luz by Susan Gardner
(Red Mountain Press, Santa Fe, NM, 2008)
Susan Gardner’s Box of Light/Caja de Luz, graced by the author’s own photograph of a stained glass detail from Nantes Cathedral in France, is a colorful volume of eloquent Spanish and English poems. Spanish versions appear on the left-hand pages and English on the right. The “Author’s Note” is shy of denoting, however, whether the Spanish or English versions are originals: “Some of these poems were first composed in English; the rest were originally written in Spanish. It has been interesting to try to capture the sense and sound of the original language in the second. Moving between languages is moving between cultures; the poems are cousins rather than twins.” With points of origin and translation therefore elusive, I read each poem as an original, and each pair as a doubled origin—a binary star of sorts—with parallel trajectories into Gardner’s imagination.
The volume includes Gardner’s own ink drawings, calligraphic strokes of brush and pen depicting hands at rest, dancers, string instruments, or pure rhythm. Roaming through the flora and fauna of the American southwest, or the mesmerizing valences of desert life, Gardener is an artist of atmosphere. Her style is unpretentious, austere, yet various. The subject matter ranges from “Shakuhachi” or a Japanese bamboo flute to “El Nivel de Polen/Pollen Count” and the ethereal “Virga:”
En Nuevo México virga es la lluvia
que no llega nunca a la tierra.
In New Mexico virga is rain
that never reaches the ground.
The geometry of her transparencies bring to mind lex parsimoniae, or the law of parsimony, as in lines from “Deseos Nocturnos/Desires in the Night:” “La noche es bella / fresca, oscura, limpia . . . The night is beautiful / cool, dark, clear,” or the azure dragonfly in “Al Pie de Black Mesa/Below Black Mesa” who is “azul y valiente/blue and brave.” Consider the sparse rhythms of “Reunion/Homecoming:”
Lluvia nocturna en las ventanas
Té de salvia
-- el vapor a la deriva --
-- transparente --
suelta su fragancia.
Night rain on the windows
Sage tea --
steam drifting transparently --
releases its fragrance.
With Gardner’s ink illustrations at silent intervals, the poems recall the dark ferramenta or heavy metal frames dividing each section of stained glass where every opening in the traceried window is called light. Gardner’s style, tone, and subject matter, however, are not limited to any particular realm of illumination. She variously focuses upon an “Apron Story,” “Multimedia,” and “Acrobatics.” Here, for instance, is a whimsical list of flavor-words for chocolate, in two tongues:
almendras, avellanas, pasas, ciruelas,
frambuesas, naranjas, mandarinas,
vino, café, té, chile
almonds, filberts, raisins, prunes,
raspberries, oranges, tangerines,
wine, coffee, tea, chile
Gardner’s syllables, round as stream pebbles, are reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s paraphrase of Occum’s razor: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” Although the English-language poems are slightly familiar in phrasing at times, the lovely cousinship of two languages -- Spanish and English -- may be compared to the song of a musical instrument whose two strings, bowed or plucked, resonate with others in rich harmonic overtones (“Tocando la viola/Playing the Viola”):
Un cuerpo envuelto aldrededor del sinuoso espacio
A body wrapped around the sinuous space
The musical vowels of her poetry give us a quiet assurance centered upon domestic spaces and natural settings, each word hovering in its own luminous space, although some poems hint occasionally at unrest, violence, and global conflict (“Condiciones Desestabilizadas/Unsettled Conditions”):
avisos en los lagos grandes
turbulencia en la atmosfera alta
Cualquier tiempo es el tiempo
de hacer la guerra.
large lakes advisory
turbulence in the upper atmosphere
Any time is the time
to go to war.
As a silver stain painted on a piece of glass is fired to permanence—yellow to orange, amber or brown—each poem bleeds moods, tones, and hues in subtle ripples and depths. The title poem, “Caja de Luz/Box of Light,” opens the volume with this locus of quiet prescience: “I put my memories of the future in this box of light.” To a certain extent, the wit and wisdom of Gwendolyn Brooks arise in my mind, and her unadorned truth that “poetry is life distilled.”
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004). She lives and teaches on the West Coast, where she is a novice harpist.