Accounted For

By Jeannine Savard


Red Hen Press
February 2011

Reviewed by Philip Kobylarz


366 A.D. A wandering monk carves a niche in a sandstone cliff after seeing a vision of 1,000 Buddhas. What results after the illusion of time is the Mogao grottoes: 492 devotional caves, works of art, axes mundis—one of the most amazing manifestations of reverence on the planet. Forty similar niches of thought, beauty, commitment, meditation, and higher love are offered in Jeannine Savard's fourth collection of poems. What is accounted for are the ineffable moments in life that, captured by a mystic, are made tangible. These poems are secular prayers replete with the tiniest of revelations by which we can measure, feel, and trace with our fingers the brushstrokes of her linguistic visions.

Asian thought factors deeply in this book. Savard's study of Eastern philosophy and tradition imbues the work with a feeling of recognizable otherness. Ways of thinking that seem diametrically opposed to Western thought are rendered complementary by Savard's stance as a bodhisattva of language and perception within pictures made of the proverbial bigger one:

Mid-way to Asia, the earth spun out of its skin.
Looking through the open core of an apple,
It began to unravel in a dream...

In this piece titled "Air Travel with a Good & Wrathful Tutor", she focuses on the thrill of transition, of the going from here to there, the change and awareness that is often perceived as suffering or as something worse—stacticity.  The narrator alludes to but holds at bay the possibility of states of terror—a stroke, the appearance of Freudian teeth—and yet what we see and are presented with are more likely to be found in a Japanese wall scroll:

...long-legged herons
streaks of a river dolphin
a circling of butter lamps

She brings us full circle to consider an existence fraught with despair, inevitable tragedy, nevertheless caught and freed in a mode of being that in the endless end offers sun streaks of joy and further possibilities of possibility.

The poems tether realms of the narrative to the lyrical, and it is in ecstatic Imagism that Savard is at her most prophetic and convincing. Relating the two most profound historical events of recent history, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the felling of the Twin Towers, her poem "Mementos" narratively lyricizes that feeling of solemn aftermath. The irony is grave: humanity, so often bent on nihilism, creates monuments full of emptiness that await some deeper meaning. Often, this meaning escapes words.

Not with Savard. Her perception of the existentialism that plagues us ever since the French were clever enough to name it is delicate and dramatic in miniature:

over the torn crow on the walk
help it to separate from the fear.
A syllable is repeated
with long brushstrokes in a mirror
on the first floor of the public library.
Light stretches around
so that no one's staring back.
Empty mirror... no facts...

What she creates in this meditation on the aftereffects of despair and futile attempts to separate human consciousness into factions is a record of how after the falling apart there is always the inevitable coming together. The poem in triptych brilliantly conjoins vignette with thought with imagery to find a sense of somewhat dubitable closure, with a nod to Stevens, the one word both problematic and emblematic of what we engender and one day must process: the "After".

Another poem features a tree struck by lightning that continues to bear life in its context as the poet muses

Nothing dies completely, she thought,
Something shines on the horizon.

Sometimes a face appears,
but it never stays.

The transitory brings with it only the notion of changeless change and though the subject matter of the poems range from the weather, to love, to considerations of Blake and Cervantes, to the drama of the give and take, Savard artfully centers her book on an interpretation of reality and definition as always a shadow play. Chiaroscuro as seen as dancing.

The final poem features Savard at her most bold, in a visionary stance of self-definition, how we try to figure out who we are via the consideration of others and what it might all mean, if there is an end to meaning. In "Home & Away", the narrator recreates what we assume to be her Arizona garden of Eden-esque surroundings in a meditation of the relationship between mother and daughter, between the colonizer and the colonized. It is an a-political consideration of what it means to inflict culture as invasion, of what it means to take what cannot ever be had, and how that gesture will lead to endless calculations on that abacus that measures the infinity of human sorrow. We understand that away is always a type of home to which we can never return.

Accounted For is multitudinous in its inventions of experience felt. The path it leads its reader towards is one that is non-didactic and mystical, showing us that metaphysical meanderings are alive and well in the contemporary canon. Jeannine Savard is an oracular voice capable of transporting us into mindscapes of the great thinkers and feelers who have come before her and in whose tradition she continues. This book advances the craft of American poetry into a realm of discourse that is currently rare. Her poetry inspires spires of deep being that, like the title, are duly and gorgeously noted.