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