“A Dreamer’s Guide to Cities,” San Francisco Bay Press, Virginia/San Francisco: 2008
Outside the gate, crab boats carve
Hunting grounds between shipping lanes.
Yellow lights flicker and loyal foghorn, that
Great equalizer, bellows. From Russian Hill
To the Mission, we all fall asleep
To that deep calling
– From Transported, by Joan Gelfand
Passages of almost ethereal beauty such as the above lift Joan Gelfand’s A Dreamer’s Guide to Cities and Streams into the realm of the extraordinary. Transported alone has more poetry in it than most volumes of contemporary poetry. Here, in a few short lines we find evocation of all the senses, including the sixth, jumped into being by suggestions of beginning, danger, discovery, alarm, assurance, judgment, mission, death, and eternity—an archetypal transport to the holy realm of dreaming.
We are suddenly in another world or the mysterious afterlife via the route of concrete images. Gelfand’s verbal amusements often remind one of Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly in relation to packed sounds clashing on their way to heavenward conceits. But, in Gelfand’s imaginal world (the poem), “in-stress” is seldom followed by “in-scape” in a convincing way with explosions, but rather with more modest pauses, as if she becomes reflective briefly and then plunges into the whirlwind again, leaving behind smatterings of abstract language.
Her way of chilling out, apparently. Consider what she’s climbing or crossing on her journeys upward and/or out: bridges, ladders, spires, the clatter and chatter of cites themselves that rise like ledges of mountains; and to what she climbs or crosses to: love, art, greatness, spiritual life.
This ladder: a spire
Sketchy interpretation, Jacob
Reaching toward infinity, the stars, the sun.
If you make it up, and back,
To Gelfand concrete words and images assemble like rungs on a ladder to which she steps to a higher purpose, sometime pausing on a rung, taking thought, and then moving on.
I leave that city pulsing with possibility
Rushing with the hope of art that speaks
To the place inside that is never alone
Where color, shape and being is everything.
I crossed that bridge alone,
Mapped the future as my own.
And, goodness, what a hurry she’s in. She’ll take any vehicle: haiku, sonnets, prose poems, villanelles, pantoums, love poems, nature poems, odes, free verse, etc. and at least hitch a ride with them a little way down the road; and if ordinary language is too slow or clunky for her aspirations, she’ll take an eraser to the syntax of things or find an ax or, for instance, choose to talk about passion and love and concepts at large by the excited enumeration of concrete things. Here’s a section from the unnaturally beautiful Olive.
Long lines of flouncy olive trees formed wavy, drunken aisles, silvery leaves growing out like Medusa’s hair. Summer in Pistoia.
July fourth in the heart of Tuscany. Yellowgold houses against baked brown earth, and all those olives, afternoon sun making her sweat, so she did what he liked best in that grove, out of the glare.
Later, off the main street, in a small square, she dipped plain bread in bitter, pressed oil. The grove’s hard fruit entered her, dripped down the back of her throat…
It’s hard not to love/admire such writing—fragments, banished structural words, twists of thought, liberties leading somewhere—to life, the eternal, to art that is perfectly redemptive, splendid, and worth the tricky verbal trip.
Engineering, poetry, and the wonder
Of holding things aloft.
…is what you get from Gelfand, running, gulping air, stalking poetry across the bridge and into the ephemeral.