Waking to WAKING TO SNOW by Robert MacLean
Review by Jami Macarty
In mid-December, 2020, Eleni Zisimatos, the poetry editor and factotum at Vallum, asked me if I would be interested in reviewing Robert MacLean’s Waking to Snow (Isobar Press, 2020). Based on my experience that writing a reader’s response to a book I’m not enthused about is dreary and thankless, I replied that I preferred to spend time with the work before committing.
On January 21, I wrote: Dear Eleni,
I read Robert MacLean’s Waking to Snow. I found it to be a tender mix of charming, endearing, and knowing. It brought me to quiet contemplation. That’s its power! However, being called to quiet, rather than articulation, doesn’t bode well for writing a review of the book. I’m not called to write one.
Then, on January 23, I wrote:
You know something, dear Eleni, MacLean’s book stays with me. Maybe I do have something to bring to words on its behalf. What’s taking shape in my mind is a non standard reader’s response-review of my own sort…
My exchange with Eleni says most of what I want to say while saying everything about the power of the poems in Waking to Snow. These are poems endowed with capacities both rare and laudable—to change a mind. Indeed, Robert MacLean’s poems changed my mind—twice.
Change 1: The poems brought my mind to a wordless stillness.
Change 2: The poems stayed alive within me, bringing my mind from inarticulation to a wish to articulate.
Still, I’m resistant to writing much more about Waking to Snow. It feels wrong to break the spell with words after the felt experience has been breathed and lived, the Zen wisdom experienced, the lessons cellularly assimilating.
Please accept this invitation to further follow my footprints in the snow, to wake to Waking to Snow!
MacLean’s poems contend, foremost and most appropriately, with Buddha’s First Noble Truth: Duhkha, commonly translated as “suffering.” At the book’s heart, “Still,” a long poem in eighteen parts, brings to the foreground the tortured, “strangulated drown-out / moaning” at the loss of a baby “born sleeping”:
……..Babies wail from nearby rooms
……..voices of visitors greeting new mothers
……..squeals of delight
……..this room silent our little guy
……..waiting on the 4th floor in a refrigerated unit
And, for there is always also the ongoing of life:
……..like Blake’s front-plate to
……..Songs of Innocence and of Experience
……..a few early plum buds
This is to say, Waking to Snow is at home among the “books on death,” and also, unmistakably, a book on life. As such, it is a “Rebuttal to the First Nobel Truth.”
A Zen practice is possible because of the body. This Zen-practicing poet contemplates here-ness, now-ness, and is-ness as he reconciles his human body as and in space. Everything within and without. That is, the poet contemplates the locale/setting and what/who moves through it from Japan to Canada, as he contemplates thoughts moving through his mind. His child’s coming into being lobs him back to his own childhood, where the soon-to-be father is the son, as if a return from traveling, from who one is to who one was. The poem, “Father” addresses this regression and progression:
……..I keep seeing my father
……..in old men passing
……..with stooped shoulders
……..I want to embrace him calling
……..but find myself frozen,
……..my own bones hunching into
……..the same question mark.
The poet, the Zen practitioner abides in inquiry. In the prose poem, “Kinhin,” which the end notes define as “walking meditation, as practiced in the Zen tradition,” reveals this jewel: “Do we move because we are terrified of where / what we are? I pondered this notion of few days but its component images dissolved into a nameless bird singing outside the half open window. Here I am, here! Heartbeat, breath tide, leaf alveoli.”
In these poems, trees and animals are objects of attention, studies in being, and ultimate masters of Zen. In “Chickadees,” the black-capped birds are “in the / high pines” and the poet will “wear their song / all day.” In “Still Life,” a heron is “stilted / on one leg / / in white- / water rapids / and slashing / rain” delivers a lesson of a stillness possible even during a storm. The “pug-nosed Sakara / tied up all day / whimpering beneath / the stairwell” is taken for a walk in “My First Guide in Kyoto.” A calico cat “down the ravine where [it’d] been thrown away” is rescued in “Tsukiko.” All life is acknowledged with caritas; each life—in movement and stillness, in daylight and nighttime—is contemplated as a point of devotion to the moment, moment to moment to moment.
Back to “Kinhin”: “Voice trailing off, no longer interested in completing the syntax.” After all “who’s to say saying means anything” (“Far”). Like the “mornings” in the poem, “Only,” these poems are “doing / nothing special” and that’s their strength. Robert MacLean’s poems aren’t flashy; they live in the interstices between what we humans, we poets pretend to be and what we are: “breath with no one to breathe.”
Jami Macarty is the author of The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona winner, and three chapbooks of poetry, including Mind of Spring (Vallum Chapbook Series, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. She teaches writing at Simon Fraser University and is editor of The Maynard.