Book Review: Past All Traps by Don Wentworth
Past All Traps by Don Wentworth is a book of rare, yet startling beauty and enlightenment following the inspiration of Issa. It is a collection of haiku, tanka, and short form poetry that will delight any poetry reader or lover. Usually, I would write a much more lengthy introduction for books that I am reviewing, but in this case, Wentworth's book rendered me speechless to say the least. Each of his poems made me think and twisted my mind and heart into different perspectives--sometimes hauntingly, sometimes philosophically, sometimes even humorously. It is quite simply a book that deserves to be read again and again.
And now without further ado, I will be discussing a few selections of Wentworth's book.
Stop counting syllables,
start counting the dead.
I really admire how Wentworth opened this book with this powerful poem. It is humorous in that it pokes fun of syllable counting when it comes to writing the haiku form, yet he writes for us (more like commands us) to "start counting the dead." If we stop to think about this, can we ever count the dead? It's mind-boggling, yet when we do count the dead, it is when lives are lost during tragedies like wars, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. But even then, there are still more missing. In counting the dead, there is emotion; there is the haiku spirit which is much more important than counting syllables. I also like the tangibility and intangibility of both subjects: syllables and the dead. The contrast between both subjects are startling.
I also love the sporadic pieces of wisdom in Wentworth's poems. For instance, in "The Other," Wentworth writes that words are meant to be given and received. I like how universal this poem really is--a depiction of the collective human experience when it comes to words, because really, we don't own our words per se.
These words are the words
of another I have borrowed.
We are given words for a
short time. Revel in them.
Make them yours. Soon,
very soon, you will be asked
to give them back.
How can we be closer to the Divine? The following poems are written in such a reverent way that are breath-taking to any keen observer:
Clouds on the horizon --
the thousand-fingered ailanthus
points the Way.
The million-mouthed prayer --
purple morning glories.
In the first poem, the ailanthus is literally translated as a "tree of gods" or "tree of heaven." All its leaves (the "fingers") point the Way, which could be interpreted in however we would like it to be: the Eightfold Path, carrying the Cross (Jesus as the Way), and so on and so forth. Everywhere we look where the ailanthus' fingers are pointing, we see a bit of the divine.
Speaking of the divine, even the things in nature seem to show that reverence to the heavens as in the second poem: morning glories opening their million mouths in prayer like a choir of angels singing "Gloria in excelsis deo..." just to start a brand new day. How wonderful it is to wake up and see something like this every morning!
On a more earthly side to life, we also see death as in the following poem, "Autumn":
one day all the colors of death
just fell into focus
and out again.
This poem reminds me of the patients I've worked with and even the people (loved ones and friends) I know who have held onto life for as long as they could until death took them away. For me, this poem struck a personal experience in which I could have lost my life in a major vehicle accident (six cars were involved; I was car #4). And then, there were near-miss experiences in which the stupidity of drivers jumped onto my lane at the last minute without giving me any time to react and slam on my brakes. Although I have scraped by without a scratch each time and even though I would have lost control of my car, to this day, I still thank God and my guardian angel for having been there to save me. This poem reminds us of our vulnerability as human beings because death itself comes "into focus / and out again" constantly. Each day is a little closer to death itself.
And continuing on the theme of death, readers can see the harsh yet elegant reality of the death of a rose in this lovely tanka:
May I move
into my death
with the poise
& grace of you,
While to me, the ampersand was unnecessary in this tanka (it would have been better if it was written out instead), this tanka is simply beautiful. It is written as in the form of a prayer or a wish instead of a question. The death of a rose is quiet in all its elegance and "grace" as mentioned in the poem. Even in death, the sweet scent of the rose is still there. Unfortunately, our deaths are not always in that way--neither sweet nor graceful--even though we still dream of dying in our sleep as the most silent and painless kind of death. If I forgive the author for using the ampersand for a moment and look at the structure of the poem itself, the shape of the poem is almost in a form of a rectangle, which makes me think of a coffin (as we're discussing the death theme here). If the author had written "and" instead, the shape of the poem would not look like a rectangle--like so:
May I move
into my death
with the poise
and grace of you,
Overall, I enjoyed this book tremendously. There was plenty of room for thought and laughter sprinkled throughout the book; but most of all, I enjoyed the meditative honesty, detail, and wisdom from what each poem had to offer. After all, no matter how many traps or blessings we're in (or even set ourselves in), Wentworth makes us scrutinize everything in life: both man and nature.
Past all traps,
my shame revealed --