Online Edition: Summer 2010

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 The Gate of Horn

 L. S. Asekoff

 Northwestern University Press ($15.95)

 by Russell Brickey

For anyone who has written a poem, the bugaboo of raising language above mere denotation looms large on every page. And then there’s that annoying problem of process—how is a poem supposed to develop in the ether of words?

The Gate of Horn by L.S. Asekoff has clearly found a way, for Asekoff’s language reaches a nicely wrought standard of imagery and turn of phrase. For example, in the opening poem of the collection, “Black Valentine,” Asekoff seems to sum up the experience of birth and the numinous possibilities of the subconscious that’s mysteriously connected to the mother’s life before:

Passing through the Gates of Life
I heard the secrets women whisper
Only to women.

These secrets are dark, gendered, and include “the rape / In the North End stairwell when she was eight,” which is empathetically resolved by the birth of the speaker’s own self years later—“How I rose that December morning from her once-shattered pelvis, / “A blue-eyed Dresden doll.” Painful, brutal, and in the end redemptive, “Black Valentine” offers a picture-perfect example of how a master poet negotiates lyric abstraction and meaning, making the painful redolent with human possibilities of rejuvenation.

Asekoff is intimate here, although this is not his only palette. “Oracle,” a wry homage to Chinese democratic protestor Wei Jingsheng, summons the almost mystical appeal of those brave enough to face-down totalitarian regimes:

He who saw “the dark face of the State,”
tasted ash from the bitterest star,
reads ideograms off butterfly wings,
hears the jade battalions of the waves shattering on sand.

Sounding very much like Buddhist koans, “Oracle” pays implicit homage to Jingsheng through a thundering use of the poet’s own native English. Then, in a moment when the symbolic world becomes tangible, Jingsheng “bows before the Emperor of Salt— / a cod’s head, its corona of flies.” The image is a correlative to communism: the ancient Chinese industry of salt production (heavily controlled and taxed by the Chinese government) is now degraded and decapitated as is the state to which the activist bows sarcastically. Such brave political statements are rare in contemporary poetry, and Asekoff’s breadth is refreshing in this context.

Equally far-seeing, “House of the Fifth Sun” takes as its subject ancient Mesoamerican deities and cities. Aztlán is elevated in its beauty, a “Place of Whiteness / . . . / Stone Gardens / Floating geometry of pyramids.” The collective voice of the Toltec civilization, on the other hand, laments “Once they wrote with flowers / . . . / Once all precious things were one,” and the speaker asks Coatlique, Aztec goddess of creation, “Why are you weeping, / Weeping as you dance in the flowery field?” It is an appropriate question in our ecologically challenging times, yet if there is a weakness to The Gate of Horn, it is in a certain reserve common to contemporary poetry: the gods do not speak back.

Asekoff writes in a number of different styles and voices—the brief lyric, the dramatic monologue, the sectional poem—which highlights his versatility as a poet and moves the collection as a whole unpredictably forward with each page turn. He also experiments with difficult longer forms, even though these are not his most successful endeavors; it is hard to negotiate his verbose style with any sense of cogency. Still, Asekoff delivers an elegant collection, well worth reading and rereading for the best poems within it.


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