By Michael Collins
As the title of Paul B. Roth’s most recent collection, Moments in Place, might suggest, the poems embody a quiet wisdom, a gentle apprehension of complexity and paradox. The opening poems are formed of short prose sections separated by blank spaces that read like meditative pauses between iterations of thought, indicators of silent movement, sometimes an association, others a deepening of thought, a self-reflection, a return. The speaker’s patience brings a calm feeling to the poems, giving their insights into the insubstantial nature of perspective and identity the sense of release rather than edginess.
“Lost in the Self” begins with one such disclosure: “I admit to being no one I know. A complete stranger who happens to speak a language I hear but cannot translate” (13). The syntax illustrates the expression: The first statement distinguishes self from self-observer; the second, a verbless fragment spliced from the first, evokes the loneliness of this awareness, it’s stifling of activity, even of the self-reflective mental sort being pursued.
Unexpectedly, this impasse is removed during the pause before the next section: “Life sneaks up on my pursuit of it.” The speaker’s awareness doesn’t resolve the opening quagmire. It moves beyond it, realizing it has done so after the fact, as if it had happened from the outside. This opens to an unfolding of images that arises from a wish made conscious to “be the darkness words build up from their depth.” Notably, as the sequence progresses, continually extending in one overflowing sentence, the images take flight into a landscape of discoveries, “push off a spruce branch the way a cardinal’s sudden flight unclings rust colored casings from around the secret green of new pinecone buds.” The movement of images, “the darkness of words” in their evocative rather than denotative mode communication, frees thought from its own conundrums.
Consciousness just won’t sit still; one wisdom of these poems is to release control of their movements at times, allowing them to ease the mind free from its own constructed dilemmas. Though such a process the speaker is ultimately returned to the wisdom upon which his personhood rests. Here again the syntax is instructive, the final stanza a clause that seems to describe each and all of the movements that precede it in the poem: “Which is why my destination’s never sought another end, never hid its own beginning in any origin, or made me anyone this stranger would ever know.” The poem arrives at a statement quite similar to its opening, yet we perceive its reality differently having experienced its meditative rediscovery, “the stranger” a paradoxical grounding.
Other poems, open similar discoveries relating to other strange loops of consciousness. “Realized Day” opens with a subtle pun evoking a similar need for the ego to quiet itself for its own good” “Without ever coming back, I step out of my own way” (3). An image describing the speaker’s upward climb also highlights the duality in his distance from the earth remaining stable throughout: “uneven rungs of stone beneath my feet raise me up to the height of Earth’s surface.” This shifting of awareness is similar to what we saw in the first poem: One vision focuses on the next steps of the journey ahead; the other perspective, observes, maintains relational awareness of the ground below.
In this poem, consciousness moves toward an awareness of death, perhaps as an intuited end of the journey: “Dry leaves, the sound of whose dropping guides me along, keep me guessing as to which one will fall next.” However, these subtle forebodings are treated just as any other thought within the speaker’s meditation; consciousness simply continues its self-observed movements, noting how the ego shifts from its focus on the journey to a pining for the past: “How geese, veering southeast at dusk, vanish only where my longing can follow.” Here again the poem’s unsentimental tone, along with the capturing of its emotion indirectly in response to the image, allow the reader room to learn about movements of consciousness through the speaker’s quiet witnessing. Here, in particular, we can perceive the oppositional relationship between directed attention on a goal and an often-silenced foreboding of loss. However, within this dynamic, the poem also models how our deeper awareness can allow interconnections between such seeming poles to emerge.
“After a Long Storm” contributes insights about the relationship between consciousness and time itself. From the opening intuition that snow “falls through me without stopping” (4), the speaker arrives at a complicated insight through his process of standing outside observing the winter landscape: “Left with nothing but icy winds sculpting curls atop frozen waves, has been the way my life’s become the length of time it takes one single snowflake to touch down.” The appearance of stilled waves in the snow seems to arise from – as well as in contrast to – the fluidity with which snow and observer became one another in the opening. All of life is arrested in a moment of perception; life flows beyond that moment into another.
The interplay between image and insight takes on another form of expression in the collection’s lineated poems. “Announcement” appears to open with traditional capitalization:
When we speak
to the dead
their eyes look
straight through us (67)
However, we realize that only the first letter of each stanza is capitalized, creating a tension between the poem’s use of capitalization and grammatical sentence boundaries:
every tear we shed
with clear salt
just to see them
takes the same speed of light
only our dreams
These conflicting imperatives to the reader correlate with the paradox of the dead being present in consciousness though absent in every other sense. The poem reflects this non-dual awareness back onto the speaker in the capitalization of “Realizes,” which appears as a verb playing the role of a subject – or a depersonalized fusion of the two in which verbs have identity and the nouns we often presume to be their causes are pulled along shorn of signification in their wake. This observation of action superficially unrelated to the observer is, of course, much like our experience of the dreams the poem concludes with. The living, for both dreams and the dead, are a place where they may be seen. The observing mind here perceives itself here as a space where things take place outside of time; whereas, in the previous poem its observation of exterior space facilitated an insight into the flexibility of time within consciousness. This comparison speaks to one of the most astonishing features of this collection, how far – and in how many dimensions – it is able to explore within its own stillness.
The text’s own existence as – and as negation of – a “dream” from which it arose features in “Sequential,” part of an interesting series of poems constructed of longer unlineated sentences with no final punctuation: “Handed me in another dream, a delicate white cup” (38). The poem proceeds through attempts at “as though” interpretations that attempt to integrate the dream into waking reality and “tantalizing” mythical reference that might provide cultural context. Yet, none of these allow the speaker to drink from the cup, instead “causing my teeth to bite down hard on its rim, savoring only the porcelain dust this entire dream’s made of.” By the time we’ve reached the final reference to “this entire dream” it’s unclear whether the speaker means merely the dream itself or also the dream in the poem, the story of breaking the dream into ironically consumable parts by attempting to relate the cup to things of this world rather than leaving it to be what it is, a dream image.
Though frustrating for the logical mind, this conclusion is actually somewhat hopeful. We can’t succeed at reducing dream contents to purely conscious comprehensions, but we’re much better off for the ongoing potential for surprise, mystery, insight, awe left possible by this void. “The Found Song” opens with such possibility: “The lost song is found in the silence it takes to hear it. It creates us, and whether we choose to ignore it or listen for it, it can so easily escape us” (18). This inversion of our usual assumptions about the causal and chronological relationships between singer, song, and listener underlies many poems in this collection and the insights they offer us, poems that embrace as essential to their own generation the silence often thought to follow them.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Moments-Place-Paul-B-Roth/dp/B0BRYPQYTL
Michael Collins’ poems and book reviews have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala and the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances, which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY. Visit notthatmichaelcollins.com.