Writing as Dreaming: Paco's Atlas

Book Review by Gopal Lahiri


Book: Paco's Atlas and Other Poems

Author: John Thieme
Genere: Poetry
Publisher: Setu Publications, Pittsburgh
ISBN: 9781947403000
Pages: 54, paperback, Kindle
Price: Free for Kindle Unlimited members;
$7.50 / ₹ 676 for paperback edition

In modern poetry, a lot happens in forms and contents and nonchalance tends to be the order of the day. John Thieme’s collection of poems ‘Paco’s Atlas and other poems’ is different for a while on the question of form and content. Here is a poet whose wide-ranging and brilliantly perceptive work, is presented in the form of oral history. One can notice from his poems, a certain prosaic quality to the words. John has avoided the emotive language of lyrics in favour of lush, rolling and evocative sentences.

John Thieme
Often the poems are composed of lines more than ten syllables long, yet fluent and fascinating with witty verbal acts. It’s easy to fall under the spell of word play, which shift gracefully from one sentence to another. This book is a far richer collection of poems and one that perhaps more accurately reflects human experiences written with cartographer’s precision.

In her Preface, Vassilena Parashkevova has rightly pointed out, ‘A folio of maps in verse, Paco’s Atlas shape-shifts and spills over the borders and frames of atlases geographical, ethnographical, anatomical and zoological.’.

She has also added, ‘Paco’s Atlas may also be read as a creative companion or travel guide to John Thieme’s work on postcolonial and global literatures – an extensive contribution to the field in both its significance and range. For me, his poetry collection is not only marked by the same passion for revisionist cartographies, but reads also at once, as sophisticated and effortless as his criticism, intellectually rewarding, yet seductive like Scheherazade’s tales’.

Gopal Lahiri
John Thieme’s poems appear to wrestle with inner workings to reaffirm life and love through his creative verse. The poet treats the poems like a canvas, filling it with layers of careful detail; constricted, sparkling lines and kinetic word play. Dense with ideas and references to art and history, one can’t but agree with the poet’s thoughts relating to unleashing of imagination.

Not to be outdone, a freckled nun exclaims,
“She is the perfect mirror of my soul!
I see myself within her plumbless eyes.”
Contagion spreads as others catch her mood.
They, too, now find their likeness in her frame.
Like Botticelli’s Venus each one steps ashore,
newborn, completed by the darshan of her face. (New Woman)

The poet once wrote, ‘So on one level, for me, writing is simply dreaming. At its best it brings the static peace that I write about in this poem. In one of my more fanciful poems I imagine an avatar of one of the world’s great storytellers, in a situation far removed from that of her prototype, telling tales to listeners who seem equally displaced from their customary environment. This stylish and propulsive poem explores the naked voice echoing inside.

I dream Scheherazade is whispering night-time tales
to Aboriginal piscivores,
who squat by rockpools on an Alpine ridge.
There seems to be no danger from the snows,
nor threat of injury from human hand,
but, babbling storyteller that she is,
she chatters on to prove that she’s alive. (Another Night)

In some of his poems you can find a minimal application of juxtaposition that meditates between body and soul, while at the same time a profound sense of quietude is evoked. The elegantly phrased and rhythmically paced description is painterly. Readers are drawn into his poems by their quality of confiding intimacy and rare brevity.

Another Malabar sunrise.
Encircling dunes and palms that bow to earth,
paying mock respect to me,
their sceptical Messiah.
I doubt tomorrow will arrive,
but I’m happy building sand-churches
that may outlast another tide. (Thomas)

The poet is honest about her thoughts on poetry, ‘Most of the pieces were born out of an attempt to dream a particular situation into existence, but such attempts frustrate completion, not just for the reason mentioned above, but also because readers will inevitably be the ultimate arbiters of meaning. Without readers, writing is inert and lifeless. So, I hope that those of you who are about to embark on this short volume will dream with me.’ His words make dreaming explicit and also breathe new life into methodical images with geographical positioning and the myths they depict at life.

Defeated in his quest, Paco goes home to his Atlas,
turning its pages with the fervour of a man condemned to hang at dusk.
He shreds every section that supports the claims of other explorers.
He annihilates stories of navigation, settlement and greed,
until the Atlas is slimmed down to four blank endpapers. (Paco’s Atlas)

Sometimes John takes a wide-angle lens to our complex life and its attendant anxieties. His poems which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a didactic, almost academic quality.

There is a voice, but deafness mutes the call,
a rumour from a ghost, explaining all. (Rumours)

His poems at times conjure up a world in which other creatures are animated and can be talked to. Their surfaces sometimes are coarsened with twist and turns yet they hurtle towards intricate metrical patterns of time and space. Here the poet has confessed ‘writing allows me to dream other worlds and other possible existences into being’. The poem ends with a strong emotional punch.

Outside my dog dream, I am a confirmed doubter,
but in that suspended hour all uncertainty disappears.
I focus on the smells in hand,
I sniff, therefore I am. (Pragmatist)

 Even the poems that cross the finishing line with a flourish are open-ended, leaving one with the sense that there will always be much more to say, and this is because the poet is possessed of his own pulsating style and fluency and an imagination that never closes.

The vampire bats flew south last May.
We sighed and breathed routine again.
Now others will be drained by their nocturnal visits,
while we warn all our friends on Facebook,
who ask where they may next alight
and what we think of TV haemovores.
There will be peace in our virtual time,
but I dream of a future,
with blood, hate, healing and love.
Let the bloodsuckers return swiftly. (Nosferatu)

Here, though, the form is a careful metaphor for what it is like to be forced into following an imaginary path: the inevitability is palpable. Underneath the surface simplicity, a mind works, and every word has been chosen with measured observation, care, and used with exact, brutal precision: there isn’t a dull note here,

The poet says ‘I imagine the goddess as a librarian, lamenting the decline of the book culture, but dreaming of a time when a lover will come and join her in reading “vast alphabets of upright types of love”.

I hide.
I took a vow of silence many years ago.
I gather wisdom in the twilight gloom.
I pace closed corridors at night.
I travel future centuries in dreams.
Concealed behind the shelves,
my thumb-nailed pages clear a space
for the entry of a dog-eared bookworm,
a reborn relic of the world’s myopic past.
He will return to read with me again,
vast alphabets of upright types of love. (Saraswati)

Wallace Stevens once claimed, ‘the poet is the priest of the invisible’. In “Saraswati’, the literature meets love and salvation, Poetry can begin at the end. The poet here is like a priest of the invisible and is not always inside his poems yet this bravura continues to be striking; it forces us to rethink about it, as well as making for very intimate reading.

I fly a kite, with telescopic camera.

I raise the periscope from my pocket submarine in your lake.
I lap other runners circling the perimeter of your house.
I scythe through the weeds in your tangled garden.
Breathless, I climb an ancient knotted oak.
I dangle from a willow, risking limb and life.
I shovel earth, as I attempt to tunnel under your moat.
My one and only wish: to be ... near to you. (Courtly Love)

The rhetorical and more prosaically alive power of poetry reside in the arresting ordering of its words. Here there is such unusual ordering, and it enhances the structure of the poem. It is one of the most exacting forms that provides an intimate glimpse, and which I suspect is even harder than it sounds.

Ignoring all my well-meant questions,
you keep the secret of your silent pages –
calligraphy that speaks the language of your soul. (I watch her write)

John Thieme is an important poetic raconteur of our time.Paco’s Atlas and other poems’ is a delightful book on exploration and mapping the inner landscape of mind and soul and is important for its significance in terms of both personal and historical restitution, of both post-colonial and global literature.

The cover page design is elegant. And surely, to read this book is actually to accompany the poet on his journey through the mazes of life. It is a must for every reader’s book-shelf.

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