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Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968-2008

By: Coleman Barks
Reviewed by: Sandra Agricola
The University of Georgia Press, 2008
$26.95, Hardcover

Winter Sky by Coleman Barks is a perfect book for muted December. And winter is the ideal time to dig into books piled beside the sofa requesting our attention. It is the season for the wholehearted yes that poetry demands—“I have often avoided / the wholehearted yes / saying there is plenty / of time. There is not.”

I first heard Barks read in the 1980s in a small town in Athens, Ohio. He was reading from his translations of the thirteenth century mystic poet Rumi. I was amazed at the spare beauty and simplicity of his translations. Time passes so quickly. It is almost thirty years later. Perhaps time is finally running out. Mute the button on your television, and if you read only one poem this winter, let it be Barks’ “Just This Once.” In this open letter to President Bush, Barks imagines a viable alternative to airstrikes and invasions. He suggests that peace activists would visit Iraq for two weeks. We would show the world we really do not wish to kill anyone. Instead of war with Iraq, we could practice “sema, the deep listening / to poetry and music with sometimes movement / involved. Unpremeditated / art and ease. We could experiment with whole / nights of that, staying up till dawn, sleeping / in tents during the day.”

Rumi suggests we listen for presences inside poems. Winter Sky is filled with a lifetime of presence—thin places where shadows move across the mountains of our psyche. In the poem “Purring,” for example, the simple explanation of a cat’s purr becomes a vehicle to explain the very nature of art: “Say poetry is a human purr, / vessel mooring in the chest, / a closed-mouth refuge, the feel / of a glide through dying.”

If there is a recurring theme to many of the poems it can be summed up by the stanza in the poem “From Central Asian Sufis and the Nature of the Heart”: 

    We stop and put our hands 
    across our chests and bow, 
    but we do not stay.

We must learn to be present in our lives for longer than our normal ADD attention span. The scrapwood man in this poem is a metaphor for the extraordinary in our lives often dressed down, seemingly commonplace. The ordinary man, the fragile peach turned planet, the solitary walk-soup-ceremony turned into religious ritual.

The black rubber ball in a prose poem of the same name, in which a dream of a black ball becomes the subject of a lecture on ecstatic poetry, becomes the presence inside the moment once we learn Mary Oliver left the real black ball on the grass while walking her dogs, the same ball which Coleman finds and tosses to the audience in a moment of participatory drama. Mary Oliver, by the way, is sitting in the audience listening to his lecture.

In a poem called “The Animal,” the reader becomes the animal:

    You are this animal, 
    digging the tunnel of your secret. 
    You scratch and scratch, 
    and you have found the ore. 

    The vein is infinitely mineable, 
    inside the trance of work 

    Now there is a soft-winged coo outside 
    above you. Your hands stop pawing 
    to listen: doves.”

Mute the TV. Silence the I-pod. Settle into Winter Sky. These poems are like inverted poses in yoga. Reading them will cleanse your mind and open your heart. These poems are like friends you’ve never met, to paraphrase Coleman, “Friends you’ve never met who are looking for you.”  Jan 2008

Sandra Agricola is the author of Yellow and co-founder of Mercy Seat Press.

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