Citizen by Aaron Shurin

Reviewed By

Aaron Shurin writes piercingly lovely poetry that ‘s multidimensional and insists on being read aloud, though its eloquence is equally powerful on the page without sound, with that enclosed, attentive ear that can turn poetry into meditation. He is so conscientiously voracious, his eye so insistent, that it’s tempting to list suggested influences—literary, visual, cultural, historical and political. But these poems in the shape of paragraphs—here I find the term prose poem unfair to both forms, and to Shurin himself—stand on their own, sure footed. Citizen is also graphically elegant, proving once again that City Lights knows how to produce a design that highlights content.

Author of eleven books, including two from Sun and Moon, a press ahead of the curve long ago, Shurin is something of a master builder, and a pedestal for fine vessels, as in “Chalice”:

Found a trophy in the distant dumb luck—me, the dowager of chance ! A sheep in shelf’s clothing. I threw a cone of silence over my desk and parceled out the hash : Dream timber, tales of subsistence, true believer clothing. I filled the groaning catapult and fired to horizon, a big pairing of what and whatever . In a rain of particulars walls settled against windows—sanctuary fence posts—reliquary doorjambs—and me slouched in the armchair reading with the radio on. The back stairs turn toward the attic in a flush of oak, something pulled the hidden lever on my cross and made a wheel. Lazily I stroke my stash. Supine giant, somnolent nest. I bury my face in your smoldering lap….my smoldering face in your lap…

What a vessel, that lap. And what a sense of sacred, sexy aroma here.

“Steeped,” the next poem, is just as compelling and sensuous, as in activating senses, and opulent, with the last lines leaving one with silence cut just where it needs to be :

Scale of my scale, raveling hive. A skateboarder rocks the concrete , cutting the muscle of silence. You, too, seeping memories, as we spin in place. An epiphyte: a love nest. Inextricable for shadow, rhyme for rhyme.

Epiphytes are plants that grow on top of or are supported by other plants, but are not dependent on their supporters for nutrition. Orchids and mosses are epiphytes, and many ferns. Lush gifts, they are often discovered in forests where flora sounds—moving with wind — are uniquely varied, sometimes jarring, sometimes gentle, sometimes silkening. Like poems in this collection.

Shurin can make you crack a sunny grin, in “Spring Breeze” declaring “I’m as stupid as a spitball in a jumpsuit,” an image so delicious it makes me jealous for not dreaming it up. But jealousy itself is stupid and envy, its close cousin, is not just a sin but a deadly one. The voice throughout this book is too generous for either.

“In the Dome” has a celestial span that brings to mind exceptional interior and exterior ceilings—Think Sistine Chapel or its relations. Think a clear summer sky populated by thrumming imaginatative twists :

In truth it was the flask of the sky I put to my lips like a castaway, from the ridge of the patio lookout, palm fronds clashing, the salmon-stucco bell tower with its great pendulous bell—wanted to—and the clouds whisked across inn flat sheets, streaming plateau, until suddenly the hot blue sky flares and the hot thick air falls with its litany of parrot screech, clanging gate, engine cough –I wanted to—where you can feel the still restless, saturated turf shift underfoot and wait for the great tumbling rain to free the next generation of buried moths in a whispered frenzy—plate shards and fabric shreds, moon-white pumpkin seeds and fluttering corn husks—I wanted not so much to say as be said to—rotating sonar…elastic alphabet…amulet ears—in the torrid mix of wind and dust and rusty guitar, a swirling vault of pressed voices, untold clasps—I wanted him to…

What we have here is a bounty of controlled ripeness, elastic and kinetic. Elsewhere, Shurin approaches a kind of explosive artistry that is powerfully gripping. These poems are often like pre-archaeologic objects that should continue to enrich . They pull and draw, in an almost chemical/medicinal way, toward a more expansive understanding of how language translates seeing and feeling.

“The Practice” is another example of his innovations, his approaches to a holy mystery :

They mistook me for illumination—a revenant in walking shoes—so I gathered significance and spread text…stood beneath the seven cardinal points with arms upraised—practical telepathy—in a white paper suit like a flag of surrender, thunder at my back…I was an open man of the open streets—s burnished sieve of common purpose—scrawled on walls, thrashed cans

There is also an unlabored confidence of step that makes the uncanny feel inevitable and new, as he goes on :

and blasted caps for equivalence. I wasn’t alone—the boulevards teemed with wiggly kids and mooing parents slow as boulders In the Plaza Palabra on a green iron bench a grand senora suffered the odes of schoolboys and thugs—smiled behind an opal fan while they searched for words to match their tumultuous nights—and all word fit… In July—volubility—I hoarded cherries, catalogued their juices, were they Rainier, Blood Nut, Royal Anne, Squirrel Heart, Rosebud or Bing?—then swallowed them one by one like detonations …initiations…In a fervor of taxonomy I followed a squadron of dragonflies right to the vanishing point…Incarnation is a provisional state, but stretches outward like noon. For practice, I wallowed and stretched.

Shurin’s name has been linked with masters like Jorie Graham and Michael Palmer. I hope my examples prove why that is so. But his songs have a grace that’s his alone. As they should, in this league.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →