Psychedelic Norway by John Colburn
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2013)
“prayer for dropouts,” one of the poems in John Colburn’s Psychedelic Norway, may end up being my favorite poem read in 2013; I say “may” only because the year isn’t over as I write this review. The poem has the dedication “for the students of Quest Academy, 2008-09.” I don’t know the dedication’s background but a quick Google shows Quest Academy to be a charter school in Texas. The poem, in a section aptly titled “a call, an action,” begins with references that are or can be ominous despite the hope for good outcomes—
may you not wander into the empty trailer behind the warehouse and may that boy’s face disappear from your memory; may that boy get old and balance branches on his head stupidly
may those four smeary mean in the clearing not notice you, may their faces distort as they turn to look and may they see nothing
—to pure song without distilling the power of the dark:
and may your campsite turn Technicolor; may clouds over the swingset never appear apocalyptic
may you see how the ferris wheel turns like a planet for you
may your skirt fly up perfectly when you dance
may the grief-bearing flowers explode in their vases
may you lock the murky giant back in storage and later may you dance with a tree or are those trees, perhaps they are clouds
and when the bridge is out may you cross by riding on the back of a black dog
and may there be a small silver house waiting in the clouds, a house with one easy window through which you see you are in heaven
The “may you” structure is quite effective—the “you” (reader) is directly addressed and the “you” is willing for such address since what’s not to like about being the recipient of a benediction? Anyway, I consider this poem to be pure magic, which is nifty as it ends with
and when you hatch, may you be carried across the earth by a woman, by a feather, by drumming
she is the woman who wove the old world, which she now balances casually on her head and you are free of it
and may you know how you got free
and may you receive this magic all the days of your life.
It’s a gorgeous, ravishing rendition of too-often dangerous times, but with the message refusing to be mired in danger even as it still hearkens the more positive possibilities of life.
The other poems are also strong and make me think of how Poetry contains a strong—and welcome by my sense of humor (caveat: people have called it “warped”)—strain of subtly manic jumps from initially disconnected narrative references to make up an organic whole through the body of a poem. I initially thought to name some of these poets but hesitated as it can be a tad diminishing (IMHO) as such comparisons might imply the poet being compared doesn’t possess hir own unique, powerful voice. So, I deleted mention (from my first draft of this review) of those name-brand poets, but will still mention Sandy McIntosh (who’s not as well-known as he should be) because the two poets are sufficiently different from each other, and yet McIntosh did come to mind as I read Colburn’s poems—both poets, notwithstanding the narrative jumps within their poems, also offer a poetic base of storytelling for strengthening their poems’ effects. Here’s an example (and this is an example chosen by me opening the book at random) from the poem “pre-occupation”:
Wednesday evening I attended a religious class.
I had studied the techniques of sex by watching animals.
I wanted the placid years of marriage to unfold.
I had purchased a handmade wallet.
The priest said that orange shirts were welcome.
That repentance was like a slender canoe.
Recently several drummers had died during an eclipse.
These were evil days.
I turned to a large woman next to me and said,
“I am looking for a suitable wife.
Do the widows need comfort?”
The priest frowned and read from a “little-known” text:
Let yourself rage toward the appointed hour,
like the sea rushing away toward the divine stranger’s house
on our day of thirst.
The seven claws, the wooden mouths,
The beatific statements of the horizon are signs
to help us remember that day.
Put down your paper memories in a basket of wine
and let the blood shrink your fears.
He was making it up.
His mouth and fingers shook.
The large woman put her hand on my hand.
Outside a squirrel circled the trunk of a tree.
“I do not curse or strike at people,” I said.
“I have upward mobility.”
Another strength of the collection is its sly humor—it’s such a joy to read—and, perhaps more significantly as other poets don’t do this as well, its tightness. That is, the poems don’t just rely on humor and wit; I didn’t see a single unnecessary word in the collection’s poems—not a single evidence of flaccidity. A good example is the poem “obedience.”
These characteristics makes Colburn excel at the prose poem form, magnificently represented in this book.
And I also appreciate the abundance of aphoristic and unexpectedly wise lines that can be decontextualized out from their poems to stand on their own—this book can generate a whole slew of epigraphs for others! Here are some examples:
“There is a god for every ripple present on a liquid’s surface.”
“What matters most is what is impossible.”
“Human appetite is voluntary.”
Visions do not happen in time
(--from “the golden age of dobby gibson”)
We have so many ashes
for our bird to rise from
(--from “burning up”)
Gentlemen, the question is how our
song makes the flower noticeable
(--from “the lawrence welk diaries”)
Psychedelic Norway is a feast for the eyes, ears and intellect—specifically, it is an abundant feast. That is a relief as it’s a long collection at 174 pages without flagging at all! What a joy to discover a new-to-me poet to follow in the reading years ahead.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. But she is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza at OurOwnVoice; and her 2004 book MENAGE A TROIS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, was reviewed (along with Joi Barrios' poetry) through the essay "The Self Revolution of Radical Love--Externalizing Internal Worlds of Freedon in Filipina Poetry" by Michaela Spangenburg at OurOwnVoice. Eileen invites you to her new blog, EILEEN VERBS BOOKS; poets are invited to participate in three of its features: "Poetry and Money," "What Are You Reading?" and "What Do You Re-Read?"