Practice On Mountains by David Bartone
Ahsahta Press, 2014; 100 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young


Love-gone-wrong—or love, gone—is a familiar motif in the historical and contemporary literary landscapes. Heartbreak is often met with the admonition, either self-imposed or outwardly so, to do something. Take action! Win the beloved back. Move on. Rare is the advice to examine the discomfort and take no measures to ease or erase.

David Bartone’s first book of poems, Practice On Mountains, can be read as just this sort of uncommon meditation. The cast-off lover of a married woman, the speaker calls on his analytical and imaginative capabilities, as reader and as poet, as he comes to terms with the end of an intense affair. While the poems are connected to the social world (through love, lust, and friendship) the mind behind them is in the midst of a refractory period—at times stunned, remote, and wounded in some fundamental way.

Informed by the Modernist sensibilities of Stein and Faulkner, the poems are also rich with the homophonic wordplay, indirection, and disconnection inherent in East Asian kōans, building an interesting conglomerate of Western and Eastern poetic approaches. Grief, creating a language of its own, maps the communications of despair and repair. Often the lines read as fragmented answers to queries only the speaker hears, leaving the reader to infer what those questions might be, as in the poem, “Slippage Is a Privilege Theme,” when the speaker, seemingly unprovoked, replies, “About one year ago. Like a Beatrice moment.”

Absent the body of the beloved, the poems instead embrace the intertexual tradition (the Japanese practice of “allusive variation,” or honkadori). Eastern and Western literary and musical allusions abound, whether fleeting (Basho, H.D., Shakespeare) or part of an extended mediation (Glenn Gould, Li Po, Pound, Thoreau). The allusions serve as a mechanism of reflection, exposing the speaker’s internal, intellectual terrain as through the works of others he strives to comprehend, or overcome, the psychological and physical maladies of romantic disappointment.

This use of allusion operates on multiple levels. For while a traditional love story is present, the structure of the poems and the book as an entirety works against narrative linearity and conventional dénouement. The book is organized into ten poems, each broken into sections by ellipses. Unnumbered, these leaps, or possibly, omissions (“making ellipses as of each/erased thought between”), serve no cumulative function but represent a constant redirection of the meditating mind. As poet and Zen Master Eihei Dōgen wrote in Mountains and Rivers Sutra: “When you investigate mountains thoroughly, this is the work of the mountains. Such mountains and rivers of themselves become sages and teachers.” Fueled by introspection, the book becomes both questioning hypothesis and proving doctrine.

“Beautiful friend, reader, you and her are my mistresses.” Thus directly addressed, the reader is brought into the speaker’s confidence. Despite this intimacy, there is a one-sided quality to the voice, as though the speaker neither truly courts, nor expects, a significant interaction. While humble, the voice is ironically supplicant, primarily concerned with its own psychic injuries. Few particulars (either in fact or image) are revealed about the relationship, infusing the poems with a sense of eternal impermanence. The passage of time is marked by the intermittent mention of dates, but the speaker appears most comfortable when inhabiting the abstract and making periodic forays into the concrete, as if the mind, afraid to remember, requires the inexact shadows of abstraction for protection:

Jealous not of who would attract her, the grass to the cow, the
cosmos to the bumblebee, but of those who have her and would
deject her, the farmer, the bumblebee curled frost dead this
morning in the whitish pink cosmos.

It is not me in bed every night that she is arriving.

It is October 20, and I feel entitled to a room of her apparition
stroking along the haunt. (pp. 39-40)

Jealousy, farmers, and flowers are part of a common vocabulary. “I feel entitled to a room of her apparition/stroking along the haunt” is another conceit altogether. Needy, sexual, ghostly, the phrase represents a state of mind, one unwilling to decode itself completely. Yet this duality—this close juxtaposition of transparency and opacity—is one the poems foster and court. Frequently, ambiguity and uncertainty surface through the use of homographic homophones (“cosmos”), unexpected noun and verb pairings, and words that function as noun and verb (such as “haunt,” above, and “bellows” in the following lines):

I confess you with the bellows.

I confess you from one end of the room to the other. (p. 25)

Ignore the anaphora of “I confess you.” By the final poem, “Terminus,” it clear this book does not exist in a traditionally confessional vein. This is a journey of repair. In Practice On Mountains, there are no watchful deities hovering in fields or forests. There is no therapist sitting on the couch, taking notes. There is only the speaker’s voice, questioning, retracting, and interacting with a wide literary tradition, struggling to heed Emerson’s call to craft “an original relation to the universe.” Topography forever altered by absence, the speaker ties his lot to poetry, the one love left.