Below Cold Mountain Poems by Joseph Stroud
Copper Canyon Press. 113 pages, $14, paper. ISBN 1-55659-084-9

Reviewed by Rebecca Seiferle

*****Joseph Stroud’s “Below Cold Mountain” contains one of the best long poems I’ve read in recent years. The poem “Provenance” serves as an epigraph to the entire volume and is a masterful interweaving of a stroll, through the streets of Madrid, the Prado and the Rastro, respectively, the great art museum and flea market in Madrid, and an elegy for the poet’s father. The poem begins by positing itself both in the literal world and in the realm of the imagination:
I want to tell you the story of that winter
in Madrid where I lived in a room
with no windows, where I lived
with the death of my father, carrying it
everywhere through the streets,
as if it were an object, a book written
in a luminous language I could not read.
The pacing of the poem evokes the driven restlessness of grief. The poet longs to flee death’s narrow room. Wandering among the paintings of the Old Masters, who “know about suffering” as Auden put it, the poet searches
. . . the Prado, going from painting
to painting, looking into Velazquez,
into Bosch, Brueghel, looking for something
that would help, that would frame
my spirit, focus sorrow into some
kind of belief that wasn’t fantasy
or false
***** *****Some critics will label any work that is rooted in personal experience as “confessional,” never mind that such wielding of a term without distinction or definition results in a meaningless and wholesale condemnation of contemporary poetry. By such practices, even the great Spanish elegy of Jorge Manrique at the death of his father would become “confessional.” So Kochanowski was condemned in the 18th century for writing a lament for his own daughter, an overly personal and improper subject in the view of his time. Stroud’s work is often rooted in personal experience, but his best work does not end there. The self, its details and frame of the ordinary, is the only means in Stroud’s work to come to “a hushed feeling, a beatitude.” His poems seek a spiritual significance, for something that will “frame the spirit,“ “some kind of belief.” But because he seeks a belief that is neither “fantasy or false,” what he finds are questions that return him, again and again, to the issue of suffering.
why does Bosch show a lion
disemboweling a deer? Or that man
in hell crucified on the strings of a harp?
In his Allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins:
Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Avarice,
Pride—of which am I most quilty?
Why in Juan de Flanders’ Resurrection
of Lazarus
is the face of Christ so sad
in bringing the body back to life?
*****The only human encounter in the poem is with the Queen of Spain, “a woman, in a simple/black dress with pearls, serene, speaking/ to no one” who passes by surrounded by a group of “severe looking” men. This chance meeting with “The Queen./ The Queen.” becomes almost allegorical. She is enigmatic and emblematic, dressed in the color of mourning, almost a figure from a Tarot card, and the poet follows her, not to glimpse her again, but to see “which painting she would chose.” Lost again, the poet finds himself encountering Death in a painting by Goya.
In this painting
a woman stood next to Death, her beauty,
her elegance, her pearls and shining hair
meant nothing in His presence
and He was looking out from the painting,
looking into me, and Death took my hand
and made me look
*****Here we are utterly within the realm of the imagination; the pacing of the poem has driven us here. In the beginning, the poem wandered with its speaker, restless through the streets, but in the riddling gaze of the paintings, the poem took on the momentuum of the speaker, “forced into/ the one place I did not want to be.” Drawn “over and over” to the encounter with death, the speaker not only looks at Death but finds Death looking back. Returning to the streets, in the flea market he finds an old mirror where he sees his “father’s face/ in my face looking back at me.” In that “Brueghel world” the people seem “casual. . .in no hurry, as if they had all/ of the Castilian sun made its slow/ arch over us.” The poem ends in the interior where it is merely “the beginning of my life without my father” in a “Brueghel world” of the ordinary. The sacred is found only within the speaker’s imagination, in “this quietude/ this blessing. . .my father/within me.”
*****There’s not another poem in the volume that can rival the power and sweep of “Provenance,” but there are many poems of sharp brevity. “Provenance” is followed by a series of six-line poems, “A Suite for the Common.” The poems are full of references to other landscapes—Spain, India, Mexico, Southeast Asia—other literatures—Lady Izumi, Whitman, Dante, the Chilam Balam—often in intersection with the details of ordinary life, a conversation overheard on a bus, having to buy coffee, trying to get to the airport. At their best, these short poems are sharply resonant, emblematic, full of death, the other world, the opening into the sacred, while grounded in the ordinary.
*****The book’s second section “Homages/ Voices” is the weakest, containing some thin translations and too many poems about poetry, but, even so, it should be noted that Stroud’s preoccupation with poetry is more in the tradition of the Chinese masters who found the work a spiritual practice, sustaining the individual in misfortune and isolation, rather than related to some contemporary preoccupation with ambition. There are some sharp works in this section: for instance, “Bible” critiques that sacred text with the voices and gestures of the natural world. “The spider crab exults: Look at me! I, too, am of the glory/ of this world,” and the poem ends powerfully with the heron as “Lord of the Apocalypse stalking across the pool,/ choosing and stabbing: This one. That one./ My chosen ones.”
*****In the third section “Crossing Over”, the poems are more complex and less self-conscious as Stroud returns to the intersections of ordinary life with “Death...Stalking slowly, spectral, coming in from the kill.” Stroud takes the book’s title from a poem by the Chinese poet, Han-Shan, that asks, “Who can break from the snares of the world/ and sit with me among the white clouds?” However, Stroud’s work is located below Cold Mountain; never free from the snares of the world, his poetry’s richest and most compelling when entangled in the dilemmas of the ordinary. For Stroud finally locates the sacred not in some belief, or ethereal location, but “here,/ now, right here in the clasping, sweating, scarred//palms of our hands, bridged together, holding on.”