Breaths: Poems by Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz with prints by Yoshiko Shimano

Breaths
Poems by Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz with prints by Yoshiko Shimano
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press
2012

reviewed by Mike Walker

A difficult yet rewarding book, this.

Breaths, I will simply state at the onset, was a difficult book to read and review. Not “difficult” in the sense that the poetry was obtuse, long, or overtly complex—as is, in example, the work of Geoffery Hill or even a recent book I read by Richard Hilles. In fact, Santiago-Díaz’s poetry is in most instances simple in form, direct in content, and inviting to the reader. It is what I think most people who do not commonly read poetry would probably expect from a contemporary poet. The poems are short, they focus on aspects of life that you’d expect from a poet, and they could without exception stand alone in a literary journal without the additional support of their peers on the pages. Why then in fact this book made for difficult reading was its ease: often at first, I would read two or three of his poems and feel I had gained little, I’d learned nothing beyond what I would have expected to learn. A perfect example would be the opening lines of the poem “On Different Pages”:

At the dawn of sorrow,
I drop a tear
and sob.

Forgive me for saying this, but is this not the type of poetry we would expect from a decent student in a ninth-grade creative writing class in high school? If it opened a poem that was more ornate, more involved than the short “On Different Pages” is—if it became something more involved—then it might hold great import, but as-is, I was unimpressed. Yet, in other poems there were suggestions of greatness, obvious examples of well-crafted explorations. To understand, then, what is going on in this book it probably would help to understand the poet and his apparent reasons for undertaking these poems. Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz teaches literature and writing at the University of New Mexico, and is also an avid martial artist and student of Asian cultures and Eastern philosophy. He is also Puerto Rican and both his ethnic background and avocation of the martial arts come forth as crucial wellsprings for these poems and the trajectories they establish. To an extent, he is also a confessional poet though you would not mistake one of his poems for something by Sexton or Plath. Like fellow Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré, he is writing about himself but also about someone else—he is with a very gentle hand establishing a mythos for us but seems concerned as to make its magic all but invisible to the untrained eye. This book contains reproductions of fine art prints by fellow University of New Mexico faculty member Yoshiko Shimano who draws on the lengthy tradition of Japanese print-making to produce sublime, sparse, yet beautiful black and white prints to book-end these poems and serve as waypoints through the various positions of thought encountered in Breaths.

When taken as a whole, this approach more than works and in fact produces a comprehensive, robust, feeling of a masterful work of writing. Some of the poems, alone, also accomplish this lofty goal, often bringing us to consider world affairs in a very personal and astute manner, as in the case of a poem about a Palestinian woman. That same tone I at first took as somewhat immature or incomplete comes forth with wisdom and an economy of language that serves its focus well when Santiago-Díaz applies it to interrogate difficult topics and ones that are latent with sorrow. At his very best, he establishes a bridge between a story-teller tradition and one that comes close to high journalism—capturing history alongside true emotion. Never do these poems become long or overly involved, and yes at times they do feel truncated, but in general their length is much to their advantage in that they allow us introspection without bogging us down in anything that removes our focus from the core of the writing. I can well imagine Santiago-Díaz in his role of professor, writing in the margins of student work “this is good, but could be shorter—edit, edit, edit” as such seems to be the approach he has himself taken in making these poems finished works that feel sturdy constructions despite their size.

In example of this economy, consider these lines:

Celestial blue mirrors the eyes
of crabs in red procession.
A dirty face at the edge of Earth
doubles the wild flower
on the side of the trail.

There is something majestic, something very natural but with a hint of mystery and nearly New Age-inspired awe-crafting in these lines. They also recall some of the finest lines of Borges, where literal meaning seems apparent yet is cloaked in poetry nonetheless. This is how Santiago-Díaz writes of nature—as if it is always a matter of origins.

When Santiago-Díaz considers his relationship with the Eastern influences that obviously have considerble meaning and weight in his life, he in general produces fine writing that is capable of placing us in the context he himself appreciates about Asian culture. There are exceptions, however: no less than three poems concern Santiago-Díaz’s marked feelings of grave offense at various people who either do not fully appreciate or simply don’t agree with his own outlook on practicing martial arts. A prospective student who asks to train with him but seems insincere, a rival instructor who provides unsolicited advice—these people apparently irked Santiago-Díaz enough that he doesn’t just tell a buddy about such encounters over a beer but writes poems about them and then finds merit in publishing those poems in this book. The problem is, these poems—especially the one entitled simply “Unsolicited Advice” about the crass rival sensei who has the gall to remark on Santiago-Díaz’s technique—are some of the weakest in the book. They read not as poems or even good prose pieces but instead as might a letter or email to a friend about the incidents. There’s a tone of “man, can you believe this dude? here’s what this joker said . . .” that I don’t think helps the reader better understand Santiago-Díaz’s involvement in the arts he practices or the depth and scope of the training he’s undertaken. I practice three martial arts myself and I very much have empathy for the feelings Santiago-Díaz expresses here—all of us who are serious about our training decry the strip-mall dojos and their fast belt promotions, their “little dragon” classes for kids that don’t stress enough discipline—but the poems come off too strongly as rants and do not interplay the desired emotions of frustration, offense, and dedication to hard work as they would need to in order to properly place the poems alongside the better work in this volume. To reach Santiago-Díaz’s level of praxis in the martial arts, yes, a great deal of dedication is required, however as he remarks of “the meaning of a belt”—the gravity of a rank and how all that work gets worn as a muted black sash to indicate the status of the student—I would like to remind him that in some arts, including two I practice, iaidō and kendō—belts are not even worn. The outer effect of “rank” is invisible and the merits of the student are seen via his performance of kata and nothing else. If his goal was to convey to the reader who isn’t a martial artist what we endure in our training, he only comes off as sounding of sour grapes whereas those who are his peers will know without these rants typed to page whereof he speaks.

In other examples however, Santiago-Díaz is able to weave his experiences as a martial artist into the narrative of his personal growth and world-view in a more masterful and cohesive manner, and many of the best poems in the book are obviously informed by his dedication in studying Aikido and his most lucent writing clearly shows a deep connection with the concept of Ki as expressed in Aikdo. I believe Morihei Ueshiba—Aikido’s founder—would be pleased with these poems. Even in the poems above that I did not care for, his honesty and pragmatism are apparent and informed by a life lived out the martial way. If there is a core thesis to the entire book, it seems to be one of subtle responses to the question of “how do we live—and chronicle—a life? what does the poet do with the intersections between outside realms and his own?”.

It is in this tenor that Santiago-Díaz is at his best, making the remote and political as personal as his own irritations at rude folks who visit the dojo where he trains. Making his reader feel that he’d hopped a plane and spent a year elsewhere to pick up on the nuances of someone’s life, of how sorrow affects someone, and to produce in a third of a page something very telling of that emotion. Once in college, a photography professor told me that if you have a photo that is unremarkable, print it large, because everything looks better big, grand, and impressive. The devotion of of a huge arena to a voice that is lacking in thoughts is much the same, as it can amplify that voice, however in converse, taking a difficult topic and illustrating it via a few choice lines when it deserves an entire book is a work only masters should attempt and it’s an approach that overall Santiago-Díaz carries off with flying colors. Where Santiago-Díaz’s lines seem simple—too simple, too easy, nearly immature—it is truly an aspect of studied economy he has employed with the greatest of widsom.

With no small irony I should note that while I expected my own interest in Japan and involvement in the Japanese martial arts to bring me a deeper understanding of Santiago-Díaz’s poems, it worked more against me perhaps than in my favor. Every reader is different, and given the nature of poetry, the bias of readers is probably a more complex issue than with fiction where we can with greater ease simply admit that genre plays into the game at a high degree and even the most experienced critic will probably be less than impressed with a high-quality fantasy or sci-fi work if he in general avoids these genre. I tend to seek out poetry that is composed of deep layers and multiple foci—after all, Jorie Graham is my favorite living poet. In Santiago-Díaz’s poems, with their focus on his Eastern influences, I was expecting more complete consideration of things like iki and sui, or the autumnal pathos unique to the idea of mono no aware, or the quiet drama of suwari-waza techniques in Aikido. Yet, if the poet had taken this route, his poems could have lacked for immediate grace and their appeal beyond the reader who already had an acute interest in the martial arts. As things stand, Breaths does contain very powerful references to what being a student of the martial arts is all about—the very title “Breaths” can be applied to kokyūnage in Aikido as much as the more obvious influences of yoga. While personal and while of serious gravitas and well-crafted form, this book seems set on being one that will attract many readers: unlike a book by Jorie Graham or Geoffery Hill, it is one you could give to a person who doesn’t read too much poetry and he or she would probably nonetheless very much enjoy it. Again, most of the poems are quite short and all are composed of topics and themes sure to generate ample interest on the part of the reader. For its part, the University of New Mexico Press did a stellar job of the graphic design and production values of this volume and it feels like a work of art to hold in the hands. Yoshiko Shimano’s prints add an additional aspect to the book that is not only most welcome but powerful in establishing the overall feel of the work at hand. My review copy I find myself treating as I would an original watercolor or limited-edition print instead of a typical book of poetry, moving it with both hands and careful to not leave it on the porch where the night brings in damp, cool, air. I felt it was special, unique, and meant just for me. Our poet—and his visual artist friend—must be thanked for providing a book able to work such magic, and the University of New Mexico Press also must be thanked for this enchantment.

Breaths is not without its faults, or at least, not without poems that I must question how the poet felt they lived up to the same standards as those of his best work provided here, yet that’s a complaint many a reviewer could voice about many a book. This volume with its lux paper and somber black and white prints sectioning it like a microtome into different mental geographies, is nonetheless something very special. It grows on you, and a book capable of such growth is worth a great deal to me because it invites the reader to consider it anew each time a page is lifted.

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