By Ricardo Sternberg
McGill-Queen's University Press
65 pages, $16.95
At once graceful and accessible, Ricardo Sternberg's third book of poetry Bamboo Church is remarkable for its lyricism and humour. While not as unified as his previous book, Map of Dreams, this varied collection contains beautifully crafted poems in which characters step from the ordinary to the supernatural, and humorous yarns that parody myth with boldness and subtlety. Some poems affectionately recall Sternberg's childhood in Brazil, some are narrated by personae he has created or appropriated from sources as disparate as the Bible and Aesop's Fables. Almost all of his poetry is of a gently mystical tone.
The predominant theme of this book is the idea of the sacred or god (and the absence of God), but it is not expressed in an earnest or traditionally religious way.
She would drift into the kitchen
trailing fragments of a hymn that
spoke of God,
a river, the pair of golden wings
that would be hers on Judgment
and were you to look at her then
you might well decide your best bet
for a meal would be to eat out.
A divine presence is to be found in the most domestic of environments or contemplating an ant, a thumb, quarks, or Marcel Marceau.
Sternberg's take on Bible stories is a delight to anyone who has been subjected to the Sunday school versions when they were young. In Parable:
Disguised as a camel
the millionaire broke
through the gates
Brazen, that camel
brayed in the choir,
sang his rough hosannas
out of key.
The millionaire gatecrasher, once recognized, is:
stripped of harp,
halo and wings
then sent hurtling
Noah's wife produces the rainbow as a gesture of domestic reconciliation, and Jonah soliloquizes, wholly unimpressed by the almighty:
No doubt he is making
that I build him an ark
or slay my first born
or move to the suburbs
where, covered in ash
I impress upon the deaf
the magnificence of the word.
The tower of Babel "was not arrogance," but "love giving shape to its yearning." This yearning for transcendence is found throughout the book.
The warmth with which Sternberg writes about characters from his past is entirely unsentimental. Dancing with his aunt when he was a child, he remembers in First Dance:
Such a wealth of buttocks
would have slowed the walk
of anyone but (praise be to God!)
it proved mere ballast
to the strut of aunt Dolores.
One of Sternberg's imagined characters, an Angel, finds unorthodox work:
By now pronounced,
do not disturb me much
except when a strong wind blows
or strangers ask to touch. . . .
Engaged by the Moscow
Circus, I stunned those atheists
when under The Arc of Light
wings extended, I suddenly
between Dwarf and The Lady
With a Beard.
Sternberg infuses his verse with original imagery that charms the reader and inspires wonder, elevating the commonplace to the magical. Carrots nail down fields, a lettuce leaf becomes the shroud of an expired mouse, a broom whispers from the closet to be let out to dance. Despite these whimsical qualities, and Sternberg's predilection for the comic, this is serious poetry. It reminds us that laughter and pleasure are also serious. If poetry is a form of secular prayer, as it appears to be in Sternberg's imagination, these poems have a suitable home. This is lighter poetry, but strong, as befits a Bamboo Church rather than a cathedral of stone.
Ewan Whyte's translation of the poems of Catullus will be published this fall.