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BOOK REVIEW: The Wave-Maker

Teahouse of the Mind: Poet Elizabeth Spires answers big questions with small answers

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The Wave-Maker [Buy Now]
By Elizabeth Spires
W.W. Norton, 70 pages, $24

When I found out my 401(k) lost more than a quarter of its value — about four month's worth of salary dissipating into the ether — I wasn't in the mood to review Elizabeth Spires' new book of poems, The Wave-Maker.

When financial institutions, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and AIG, start to crumble and fall, it makes you kinda feel — oh, I don't know; what's the word? — "nervous."

"Panicked" seems apropos. Same with "terrified."

How about "pissed"?

Fortunately, this jumble of emotion faded to white noise, became a subliminal hum sequestered to the background, like Jim Lehrer's Missouri murmur giving us the TV news behind a closed door, by the elegant and serene spaces created by Spires' meditative poetry.

In the title poem, a voice recalls a memory of awe-struck grandeur: "It had been easy then to stand waist-deep in the waves & will the world into existence, sea, sky, & clouds," Spires writes, "the ever-changing elements, moving & robed, like characters on a stage delivering their lines."

Childhood is when we begin asking the big questions before we grow cynical of the answers in The Wave-Maker: "What if there is no sea to soothe? No mountains rising in the distance?" Spires writes in "A Small Voice Asks Some Large Questions."

"What if the words that anchor me to you, and here to there, all disappear and all that's left is noise and glare ..."

Indeed, how can we know that what we see, hear, and feel is real? How can we know with certainty?

Maybe we can, maybe we can't, or maybe it doesn't matter.

Maybe the answer is none of the above. Or maybe it's all three. As the poet John Donne wrote: "Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one."

Spires' poetry isn't influenced by Western metaphysics as much as it is by Eastern spirituality, especially Zen Buddhism and the proclivity in Japanese culture toward caricatures (e.g., Pokeman) and miniatures (a bansai tree).

We see this in tone (these are quiet poems), mood (they're also reflective), and even form.

Spires structures one poem like a "Zazen," a Buddhist meditation based on a "koan" — a sentence and phrase that cannot be understood rationally, only intuitively. It makes sense and doesn't make sense, eliciting what we in the West might call "cognitive dissonance."

She muses on a "netsuke," or small miniature sculpture, usually of some kind of animal. Hers is a badger dressed like a monk begging for alms (the Japanese, as I said, have a thing for cute animal personifications). And in a poem called "In a Field," Spires ingeniously crafts two- to three-word lines of one-syllable words, creating the aural equivalent of a Zen pebble garden.

Indeed, The Wave-Maker feels like one is gazing into a pebble garden, a meditative attempt to overcome human consciousness, to free oneself from the myopia of adult anxieties — the gains and losses of one's 401(k), for instance. In contemplating the cosmic significance of the very small, Spires' journey seems less a quest for meaning, which she strives for, than a search for inner peace, which she suggests she can never posses.

For instance, she admires the courage of a snail — "I monster that I am bow down before you" — and the independence of a cricket, who is "trying to teach me something," she writes. "What I'm not yet sure."

There are poems about birds, about gardens, and about a room painted white. In each, one finds a rich canvas of imagery on which to ruminate one's existence, a simple but elegant tapestry of language, and a myriad of confounding questions, often in form of koans.

"Do you exist when I'm gone?" she asks in "White Room. "Does the view from a window change when no one is there to look out of it? Do dust motes whirl and spin in the light, or is stasis the only rule?"

Maybe it's human nature to long for an answer to such questions. Maybe it's human nature to let them remain unanswered. Paradox may be not a event as much as it is a perpetual and more natural state of mind.

"Do I contradict myself?" Whitman famously wrote. "Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

In Spires' case, her multitudinous contradictions tap into a deep and quiet and mysterious place in the human mind.

In the end, it seems she does imply an answer, but, like a lotus blossom swaying in the breeze, she does so ever so gently. Stasis may be the rule if there's no beginning and no end. Existence simply is. Meaning, as we think we know it, may be a by-product more than a reason for being.

In "Tea," we are told that "the road is dust." We have pursued and have been pursued, but in the end, all is dust.

Ashes to ashes. "Even my mother is dust."

If life does have meaning, it's found in us and, more importantly, as Spires writes, in poetry.

"Now we are here," Spires writes, "in a teahouse of the mind."

What's losing a little money compared to that?

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