Night’s Glass Table, by Karen Zelas (Interactive Press, 2012), 87 pp, $28; A History of Glass, by Bryan Walpert (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011), 85 pp, $19.79.
‘You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw (1). Glass might be title and primary subject of two fairly recent collections by New Zealand authors, Karen Zelas’ Night’s Glass Table and Bryan Walpert’s A History of Glass, but each work cleverly refracts into the symbolic, personal and emotional. In both compositions, glass becomes a signifier of representation, illumination and imitation. At times, dark, at times bright, these collections offer divergent ways of looking at their topic, each piecing together a concrete set of lyrical ideas composed through exquisitely used language; so that, like concept albums, Zelas’ and Walpert’s works shape and develop unified stories, coalescent narratives. The result in both cases is a poetry collection which is truly accessible while still retaining great depth and complexity.
Karen Zelas’ first collection, Night’s Glass Table won the 2012 IP Picks Best First Book competition, and it’s easy to see why. The poems in this book have real impact and many have previously appeared in prestigious journals here and overseas, such as Landfall, Snorkel and Interlitq(UK). The opener ‘My House Has Many Rooms’ exemplifies the rich vocabulary and evocative imagery at the heart of the work more generally:
The study’s full of fertile loam I tend.
Words come to feed, flit and hover,
beat wings on one another, poise sometimes
upon the page, dusting colour; filamentous
legs and pulsating thorax.
The gallery’s as long as many lives.
We glide through time, examine sepia faces,
sounds trapped in vinyl, pink leather
baby shoes, grandpa’s opera hat and glasses, all
dimly lit, yet vibrant. (2).
The plentiful layering here, underpinned by finely-honed cadence and surprising, opulent words like ‘filamentous’, is as thematic as it is verbal. The external versus internal; the human versus animal; the acoustic versus the luminous; the uttered versus the unspoken; the restrained versus the liberated: it’s all intimated and explored here, succinctly so in a few tight verses. Such subject-matter forms a strong platform for what is to come. Wherever they are located — Ossetia, Moscow, Berlin, at home — the poems which stem from this opener, revivify and expand its poetic terrain. In ‘Out of Shadow’, for example, a ruru’s ‘sob’ acts as a meditation for inhibited and uninhibited feelings, as well as for love and loss:
Hearing, your wound
splits wide, reveals
the hollow she has left,
and I say there’s
always one more place
at night’s glass table
and we watch the glow of dawn
That which is reflected, mirrored, echoed, distorted, repelled and veiled: it is territory which crops up again in ‘Upheaval’, where personal and environmental turmoil combine:
He felt the thrust beneath his feet
the roil, the boil of floorboards
heard the roar, a freight train
hurtling out of control, the tilt
of his world, all his memories
And when the tremors stopped,
he picked a path through
the sharp fragments of his life,
paused in the door, anticipating
an aftershock. But there was only
as if none but he existed. (4).
In ‘Giacometti’s Fancy’, meanwhile, the poem voices women’s
or silent defiance
in a world of men
is a pearl
to be cultivated
at a price (5).
Whilst in ‘Migration’ the noticeable absence of godwits shrouds the feelings of a narrator who undertakes in imagination their exodus, the poem’s conclusion returning us to radiance:
maybe next year
we’ll time it right
see your sleek bodies
lift, wings darkening the sky
heading north west
Figurative or actual, the search for brightness, for light and clarity is there once more in poems such as ‘Odyssey’, ‘What Is Yet To Come’, ‘Convergence’ and the final work, ‘I Too Have Loved’, in which romance, that redolent arena for enlightenment and confusion, is spotlighted once more:
A kiss in the mist,
cold Dunedin night, discovering
warmth in unexpected
places. Invisible, we rose
above. Invented love
in our innocence. Ephemeral
as the butterfly beating wings
in my throat
while I remember
who I have been (7).
Sensitive, understated and linguistically precise, Night’s Glass Table is a powerful first collection. Its’ array of lyrical subheadings (…through tinted glass or eye; Deep in the womb there is a room for you….; The study’s full of fertile loam…. ), riffs off the first poem, ably display its power, its delicate punch. As a collection it offers so much sparkle, so much promise, that what the author might release next is greatly anticipated.
A history of glass
is sand and lime,
narrative of containment. To see
but not feel. To hear a little.
A lattice of lines spreading
layers of street light.
I inherited the axe
and its narrative,
clean, but not spotless,
I imagine. When
you have children
what do you tell them
about what you’ve done
and what do you leave out? (8).
Poet, short story writer, creative writing teacher and recipient of the James Wright Poetry Award (US), Bryan Walpert offers a second collection, A History of Glass which, as the above excerpt from the titular poem reveals, mixes the powerful and unsettling, the psychological and outcast. The narrator in this work treads a fine line between sanity and psychosis, chickens, children and an axe, infertility, a road accident and storytelling combining in a convincing postmodern fable of disturbance and disenchantment. It’s impressive stuff, the poem distilling the entire scope of a novella. And it’s a skill repeated in poems elsewhere in Walpert’s second collection, such as ‘Thank You Persia’, ‘Static’ and ‘Class Discussion’, in which a tutorial debate about Basho’s First snow falls/on the half-finished bridgeleads to Walpert setting his stage with astutely observed detail, sumptuous imagery and an eclectic dramatis personae:
All afternoon snow falls, as on
Basho’s half-finished bridge. Light falls
through the half-opened blinds
onto the table, over which this poem
is disputed. Why does it seem
suddenly so difficult to me?
Perhaps the speaker is approaching
middle age, someone suggests,
so all things seem elusive.
Yes, another says, the snow
is the first hint of white
in the speaker’s hair, which
he has arranged in a comb-over.
I touch the top of my head.
and why falls, asks a woman,
her eyes closed in emphasis,
her head thrown back, as if
she planned to stick out her
tongue to catch the flakes,
so young she would not think
twice about a world arranged
to suit her tastes… (9).
If the earnestness of the students is so palpable that it makes one cringe to remember one’s own early fumblings analyzing what a poem ‘means’, this is offset by the comedy and self-deprecation, all symbols of Walpert’s accomplished ability to draw multifaceted characters. Not that the author can only do ‘big picture’ stuff. Verses such as the stunning ‘Clouds over Seattle’ ‘Thesis’, ‘Apology’ and the prose-poem, ‘Postcard’, display a capability for the concise, as the conclusion to the latter illustrates:
“The world moves at the pace of the sandwich bags scurrying
in fits and starts along the curb. Meanwhile, the elm whisks a
tentative SOS on my window, its leaves thoughts dropped
absentmindedly. It continues this way without you, the way the
manhole still sighs its shape into the cold air and so many watch-
faces reflect until light rises from the street in many voices. (10).
As with Zelas’ Night’s Glass Table, Walpert’s A History of Glass returns us to — or rather steers us gently, almost imperceptibly, through — light, the illuminative and illuminating. Glass, with its fragility, transparency, symbolic value and ability to hold and fracture radiance, accentuates the multifarious topics written about —humanity, passion, failure, bereavement, and so on — Walpert, like Zelas, explores. In both books, there are such stunning renderings of poetry and poetics, the reader feels, as a reader should, sated, having journeyed and returned home the wiser for each author’s wisdoms, insights and reflections.
(1) George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methusaleh (A Metabiological Pentateuch), Constable: London, England 1921;
(2) Karen Zelas, Night’s Glass Table, Interactive Press: Carindale, Australia, 2012, page 3;
(3) Karen Zelas, Night’s Glass Table, Interactive Press: Carindale, Australia 2012, page 18;
(4) Karen Zelas, Night’s Glass Table, Interactive Press: Carindale, Australia, 2012, page 39;
(5) Karen Zelas, Night’s Glass Table, Interactive Press: Carindale, Australia, 2012, page 22;
(6) Karen Zelas, Night’s Glass Table, Interactive Press: Carindale, Australia, 2012, page 32;
(7) Karen Zelas, Night’s Glass Table, Interactive Press: Carindale, Australia, 2012, page 79;
(8) Bryan Walpert, A History of Glass, Stephen F. Austin State University Press: Nacogdoches, USA, 2011, page 59-60;
(9) Bryan Walpert, A History of Glass, Stephen F. Austin State University Press: Nacogdoches, USA, 2011, page 83;
(10) Bryan Walpert, A History of Glass, Stephen F. Austin State University Press: Nacogdoches, USA, 2011, page 25.
SIOBHAN HARVEY‘s poetry has recently been published in Best New Zealand Poems 12, Stand (UK), Snorkel (Aus) and Structo (UK). Last year she was runner-up in Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize (Aus) and Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition. In August, she will be a guest writer at the 2013 Queensland Poetry Festival.
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