Reviewed by JIM HEAVILY
Look in your ear and read.
—Louis Zukovsky, “Peri Poietikes”
Sleepwalker’s Songs: New and Selected Poems
by James Cervantes
Hamilton Stone Editions (paperback)
140 pages, $14.99
From the press
Pamphlet Series &, according to the colophon, “issued simultaneously as Whetstone Number 5,” a small magazine edited by Michael Bowden. This is a svelte little volume, with 10 pages of text, saddle-stitched in grey wrappers with a cover illustration by Timothy Brookshire. My copy has an errata slip tipped in that reads: “ERRATA: ‘One Anchor,’ last stanza, line 30 should read: / ‘who comes down a formality of rock and water,’.” The poem was subsequently re-printed in The Year Is Approaching Snow, a perfect-bound 7” x 11” over-sized chapbook, published by W.D. Hoffstadt & Sons (Brown Wrapper Editions #2) in 1981. This poem, in a way, illustrates Cervantes’ long-standing interest in confounding or conflating the senses, his synaesthetic play with language. At the end of a long sentence stretching over four tercets, he concludes with “the nakedness that drinks // an after-image of fire.” (An after-image is sometimes referred to as a “ghost image”; there is a medical condition, palinopsia, that exacerbates this phenomena.) The image of drinking something purely visual is a technique common in much of his work & one the reader encounters again & again in Sleepwalker’s Songs. Here is the poem in its entirety:
The Fires in Oil Drums
In winter, the fires in oil drums
are like the crone’s voice
repeating a child’s complaint.
In our search for a likeness
we have come to these endless stoops
where men and women are hunched
over the red domes, fallen
like the stone finials behind them.
We see her features
Scattered among faces — brother, cousin,
the child . . . but our hope
is the white parabola above each fire,
where there is no threshold
for warmth, just ice
in the lungs, as when one
turns from the drum for the door.
Now smoke complicates dusk
in the east, and evening
is a café on the dog-leg
of a twisted summer, under
its close roof
the nakedness that drinks
an after-image of fire.
The book is divided into four sections: “A Life,” “The Dream World,” “Words & Music,” “And All Around.” “A Life” begins with remembrances of a childhood, where “country western,/ gospel, and violin love music/ mix like rusty wire and vanish// like a fuse of laden air.” Images of a “bare earth parking lot, with a yard/of railroad ties across the street, and a store/behind me … (“Last Stops”) or “[t]he crow in a graveyard/ [that] looks up at me like an old man/charged with the census/of his village …” (“Signal Deaths”) draw the reader in & one might be reminded of Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Livingston, or like landscapes painted by Jimmy Santiago Baca. “A Life” stretches far from childhood, though & the long, toric poem, “The Following Is True if the Poincare Conjecture Is True,” is set in a day & age where we imagine the speaker to be in exile in some place like Sacramento, California, thinking of the passage of time & far-off friends; where what we perceive may not be as it actually appears; how a pair of doughnut-shaped holes can become a sphere:
in staring at the calendar
that it’s been five years
since I last spoke with you in person.
The same goes for James A., who writes long,
single-spaced, unparagraphed letters
about $99 airfares from NYC to Belgium,
or Jody, who writes from St.Ives,
tells me who’s been there, and includes
the fishing report, and Greg’s Christmas letter
is about a translation project in Portland,
and comes from Volume 4, Number 1,
of a magazine I’ve never seen, but which he says
we spawned somehow. I can’t figure out
what he’s talking about. It simply looks
familiar, like another strand of memory.
“The Dream World” is, as one might expect, a journey through various dreamscapes. Cervantes is preternaturally attuned to the workings of the somnolent subconscious & this section is rife with these visions as evidenced by the titles of the poems throughout: “A Place That Is Somewhere Else”; “Seven Incarnations” (where we learn, among other things that “Imago never took himself literally); “How Dreams Resolve”; “On Sleeping in a Strange Bed” in which “[y]our head has been severed again/and you discuss this with interest/with another headless soul”; “The Old Man Dreams” & “The Long Dream of Life,” another long poem that concludes the section & one that asks the question, “To whom was he writing?/Someone distant, all distant,/his letters borne over the horizon.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate to note at this juncture that somnabulism is rising from bed and walking or performing other complex motor behavior during an apparent state of sleep; much mystery has been attached to this, although it is no more mysterious than dreaming. The chief difference between the two is that the sleepwalker, besides dreaming, is also using the part of the brain that stimulates walking. This usually occurs during the first third of the night and lasts for a few minutes to a half hour. The sleeper is relatively unresponsive, not easily awakened, and usually amnesic for the episode later. In Cervantes case, the amnesia is seemingly replaced with a scorching vision, a clarity beyond dreams & song!
The third section, “Words & Music” lives up to it titled promise, beginning with “A Villanelle Returns From War.” In “On a Winter Morning” we encounter Coleman & Mingus; a “soloist’s throat is cut/ and the lazy boat has only// the wind’s direction, its song/ stolen, its voice adrift (“Piracy”); where “the piano wanders/ in the upper octaves, still trying/ to say goodnight” (“Live Music”).
“Here & There” has many poems set in Cervantes’ beloved Southwest: “[t]he home of Judge Roy Bean,/ the crypts of Queretaro” (“The Headlong Future”); “A place named Deadman’s Crossing/ could be anywhere among these rocks and trees” (“Mockingbird Bouts”). He closes the section & the book with the gorgeous poem, “Walking Down and Backwards in Walnut Canyon.”
Cervantes’ use of several different forms throughout keep the writer engaged. There are longer poems, most notably “The Following is True if the Poincare Conjecture Is True,” “Mockingbird Bouts,” “The Long Dream of Life” & “Seven Incarnations.” This last is a prose poem, of which there are several in the collection, although the forms he seems to prefer or most favors, at least as far as this collection is concerned, are poems arranged in stanzas of couplets or tercets which lend the poems a certain elegance or gravitas. There are also a couple of lovely little sonnets (a favorite form of mine), although Cervantes might prefer to call it them “fourteeners.” The poem “Seasonal” is one; “Puffball Acceptance” might be considered another; then there’s
Rococo is mentioned at the same time ornate is mentioned.
The customizer is a customer for mass customization.
One doesn’t ask why a neighbor looks stricken and throws a suitcase into her car.
A November moment when people side-step into the sun from shade gone bitter
and recall July when they side-stepped into the shade.
There is a kind of hurrying-back. One seeks elucidation
and has recourse to television. Breaking news might explain,
or an interrupted game. Still at the same party
where three women here and two men over there
speak at the same time, you feel deflated in your clothes.
There is always distraction. The show called “Tourist Planet”
is remembered by looking out the window just to see.
Or an old man addresses his johnson:
“You can get rid of wrinkles. So? Big deal.[“]
Cervantes has taught composition and creative writing at Northern Arizona University, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University, California State University-Sacramento & Mesa Community College. His background includes service in the U.S. Air Force Orchestra as a cellist, work as a landscaper, a psychiatric aide, and a director of a non-profit organization. His sources of magic (he tells us in the author’s note in Headlong Future) include “microclimates, astrophysics, chaos, the mesas of the Southwest, and poetry itself.” I had originally intended to cover some of these aspects of Cervantes’ life & work in the present review; however, that work has already been done. Kirpal Gordon, a poet who knew Jim during his years at Arizona State University, has published a recent review he conducted via e-mail & he has managed to elicit from the ever-circumspect Cervantes some rather candid remarks about his own life & work, things that I hadn’t been aware of & I’ve known Jim since the early eighties when I was a student in his creative writing workshops at ASU. In the interview, Gordon also mentions a reminiscence by Cervantes’ long-time collaborator, Greg Simon, in the farewell issue of The Salt River Review. This too is worth a look, if one is interested in Cervantes’ editorial stewardship.
Some may find Cervantes’ poetry obtuse or diffident; I know, at times, I do. But the poems never fail to enthrall or intrigue. There are moments when the poems fold back in on themselves & after reading one need re-visit the poem with an other or newer perception or perspective. And sometimes the poems refuse closure at all, opening out onto greater vantage points or unexpected vistas than one might normally expect to encounter in the usual lyric—a hallmark of his remarkable poetry, “like some new revolving world” (“Gulf Coast Blues”). I suspect that Cervantes’ audience is not nearly as wide as it should be. I most highly recommend this astonishing collection as I believe you’ll find poetry here unlike most of what you might be used to reading.
Sleepwalker’s Songs is now available from Hamilton Stone Editions.
You can also “like” Sleepwalker’s Song Facebook page. Join the fun!
Cervantes’ bibliography follows …
August 31, 2012
Collections of Poetry:
from Mr. Bondo’s Unshared Life, Vida Loca Books, 2007.
Temporary Meaning,Hamilton Stone Editions, 2006.
Changing the Subject, in collaboration with Halvard Johnson, Red Hen Press, March, 2004.
Live Music, chapbook, Pecan Grove Press, August, 2001.
Changing the Subject, electronic chapbook, in collaboration with Halvard Johnson, The Blue Moon Review, December 10, 2000: http://thebluemoon.com/poetry/cts.shtml
The Headlong Future, New Rivers Press,St. Paul,MN, 1990.
The Year Is Approaching Snow, W.D. Hoffstadt & Sons,Syracuse,NY, 1981.
The Fires in Oil Drums, chapbook, San Pedro Press,St. David,AZ, 1980.
Fever Dreams: Contemporary Arizona Poetry, co-editor with Leilani Wright,University ofArizona Press, 1997.
Poems in Anthologies:
“I Dream of War,” 100 Poets Against the War, Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK, 2003. “Signal Deaths” & “Temporary Meaning,” in Tumblewords: Writers Reading The West, ed. by William L. Fox, published by Western States Arts Federation and the University of Nevada Press.
“Prime Norton” & “Autumn Mid-week” in Gold Dust: A Journal of ContemporaryPoetry,Nevada City,CA, 1986.
“Prime Norton” in The Bisbee Poetry Anthology, Bisbee Press Collective,Bisbee,AZ, 1983.
“The Bandaged Man,” “Recent Estimate of a Wall,” & “From the Winter Hole” in Specialia: Contemporary American Poetry, Professional Productivity Assoc.,Carbondale,IL, 1975.
Magazines and Journals:
Otoliths, November, 2011: “Lament,” “Puffball Acceptance,” “Ology”
Hinchas de Poesia, #4: “Gladdy’s Blues,” “Fountain,” “Update,” http://www.hinchasdepoesia.com/Hinchas/HINCHAS_FOUR/cervantes.html
SOL: English Writing in Mexico, March, 2011: “Shock Value,” http://www.solliterarymagazine.com/poetry/jim-cervantes-shock-value/
Hamilton Stone Review, Issue # 17 Winter 2009: “X” (fiction), http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr17.html
Tata Nacho #2: “Crab Oscar,” “Tour Bus” (fiction) http://tatanacho.wordpress.com/
Tata Nacho #1, September, 2008: “Cone of Uncertainty,” “Rides” (fiction) http://tatanacho.wordpress.com/
Linebreak #38, October, 2008: “Third Hand Tale: West Virginia”http://linebreak.org/72/third-hand-tale-west-virginia/
Big Bridge, Vol. 3, No. 3: “Number Three of Photo Album Shuffled,” http://www.bigbridge.org/BB14/WAR09.HTM#JCervantes
Merge, Fall 2007: “Poems That Arrived Without a Briefcase,” “Four Visionary Stories,” “Idyll Beneath a Thunderhead.”
The Spoon River Poetry Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 2: “Seven Incarnations”
Scrivener Creative Review, #28, 2004: “Objects That Sing”
88: A Journal of Contemporary American Poetry, October, 2003, Issue 3: “A Villanelle Returns From War” & “Against Clean Lines”
Hamilton StoneReview, Fall 2003: “Nation as Null Set,” “When Mr. Bondo awoke with his hair on fire” & “Hundreds of miles to the south, in the frying pan city” (both from Mr. Bondo’s Unshared Life)
Tattoo Highway #7, Fall, 2003: “Magnetic Express”
The Laurel Review, V. 37, No.1, Winter, 2003: “Piracy,” “How Dreams Resolve,” & “Argument in the Afternoon”
Tattoo Highway, Vol. 5, No. 2, August, 2003: “Magnetic Express”
Gargoyle #45, 2002, “Poems for Friends in Mid-Winter”
Tattoo Highway, Vol. 4, No.1, January, 2001: “Clear and Mysterious”
Nebo, Fall, 2001, “Hummingbird in Zero Gravity”
Boston Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, April/May, 2001: “from Mr. Bondo’s Unshared Life” (four poems)
The North American Review, Vol. 286, No. 1, January/February, 2001: “Directions to Oblivion”
Red Cedar Review, V XXXVI, No. 1, Winter 2000-01: “Proposition and Question”
Quarterly West, No. 51, Autumn-Winter 2000-2001: “Fortune Cookie”
Poetry Now, “Does everyone wonder about the birds” & “Now it is morning, noon, and night,” from Mr. Bondo’s Unshared Life.
Kota Press, “Doll’s Lesson.” LogicAlley , “On Sleeping in a Strange Bed.”
The Florida Review, V XXIV, N0. 1, Winter, 1999: “Of My Previous Life.”
Terrain: A Journal of The Built & Natural Environments, No. 2, Winter, 1999: “Reclamation at 4 a.m.”
The Free Cuisenart, #27, October, 1999: “The Body Draws Guard Duty.”
Perehelion, V. I, No. 3, December, 1998: “The Memory Priest” & “Empty Chairs.”
Chili Verde Review, April, 1997: “A Night Where a Child Can Die.”
Ascent, V21, No. 2, Winter. 1997: “Winter Loss.”
This Is Not Art, Issue #2, Summer 1997: “Bar Code” & “Drought Poem.”
Whiskey Island, Winter, 1996: “This First Prayer.”
Recursive Angel, Issue #5, June-July 1996: “Forecast for Unsettled Weather.”
Thin Air, No. 1, Fall/Winter, 1995/96: “Starfall” & “What Might Have Been and What Was Never Meant To Be.”
Lucid Stone, No. 3, Fall, 1995: “Traveling In Strange Company” & “The Town Cafe.”
Gruene Street, Vol. I, No.1, Summer, 1995 : “Temporary Meaning.”
Blue Mesa Review (Albuquerque), Spring, 1994: “Signal Deaths.”
South Ash Press (Phoenix), October, 1993: “Spring Loaded” & “The Death ofSalvador Dali.”
Southwest , I:1, Spring, 1992: “Black Water” & “Wind on the Face of aLake.”
Pacific Review, San Diego State Univ., 1988: “GulfCoast Blues.”
The Altadena Review, No. 10, 1988 (Altadena,CA): “According To Poincare.”
Starline, X:6, Nov.-Dec., 1987 (Schedectady,NY): “Music of the TetheredMan.”
Northern Arizona Review, 1986-87 (Flagstaff): “The Unacccountable Solitudes” & “A Place That Is The Same Elsewhere.”
Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spring, 1986 (Tempe,AZ): “Make The Turtle Whole.”
Northern Arizona Review, 1985-86 (Flagstaff): “GulfCoast Blues.”
Telescope , Fall, 1985 (Sparks,MD): “In Lieu of an Ars Poetica.”
raccoon, No. 9, 1984 (Memphis): “Elegy for the Oldest Son.”
Memphis State Review, Fall, 1983: “Letter To Franz Douskey.”
Northwest Review, XXXI: 1, 1983 (Eugene): “This Season.”
Telescope, I:2, 1983 (Baltimore): “The Long Dream of a Life.”
The New Laurel Review, Spring, 1983 (New Orleans): “Northern Lights.”
Stone Country, X:1/2, 1982 (Menemsha,NJ): “For Comfort.”
Continental Drift, I:1, Spring, 1982 (Boulder,CO): “TheGarden ofAntiquities.”
Nebraska Review, Spring, 1982 (Fairbury,): “Sienna.”
Whetstone, No. 8, Spring, 1981 (St. David,AZ): “After Gardening: Dream and Remembrance.”
Telescope, I:1, Spring, 1981 (Baltimore): “Shallow Music” & “The Hero’s Ceremony of Possibilities.”
Ploughshares, 6:4, 1981 (Cambridge): “The Sun Intent Upon This Earth.”
New Letters, 46:2, Winter, 1980 (Kansas City): “The Killing of the Rooster” & “When Something Large Breaks.”
Porch, III:3, Summer/Fall, 1980 (Tempe): “Poems For The Dog Star.”
Black Warrior Review, VII:1, Fall, 1980 (University, AL): “The Old Man Dreams” & “The Proxy.”
permafrost, II:2, Fall, 1980 (Fairbanks): “Fleur-de-lis” & “Sometimes Our Angels Emerge From a Base of Fire.”
West Branch, No. 6, 1980 (Lewisburg,PA): “In Seclusion.”
The Seattle Review, III:1, Spring, 1980: “A Letter To Myself About a Friend.”
The Seattle Review, II:1, Spring, 1979: “From The Sister’s Diary.”
raccoon, No. 4, 1978 (Memphis): “State ofGrace.”
Cincinnati Poetry Review, No. 5, 1978: “In A Brown Study, Or ‘Violet’.”
Panjandrum, No. 6/7, 1978 (San Francisco): “Learning With Felt Figures” & “Different Hours.”
Daimon, Fall, 1977 (Atlanta): “The Window’s Turn,” “Houston, 1949” & “36th Birthday.”
Cutbank, No. 8, 1977 (Missoula,MT): “On The Therapeutist.”
Rocky Mountain Review, No. 8, 1977 (Durango,CO): “My Wife Transformed” & “Late Apples.”
En Passant, I:3, 1976 (Wilmington,DE): “Dream Western.”
En Passant, I:2, 1976: “At The Abandoned Farm.”
En Passant, I:1, 1975: “Autumn Mid-week.”
Michigan Quarterly Review, XIV:1, Winter, 1975 (Ann Arbor): “Amaryllis.”
Workshop #25, Summer/Fall, 1975 (Brattleboro,VT): “On The Photographs.”
Madrona, II:6, 1973 (Seattle): “Horses” (trans. from Spanish of Dimitrio Korsi).
Quarry, Summer, 1973 (Kingston,ON): “Travelling” & “A Little Bit ofSwanLake.”
Jeopardy, Spring, 1973 (Bellingham,WA): “Two Friends Return.”
Western Humanities Review, XXVI: 3, Summer, 1972 (Salt Lake City): “Casting A Flying Orchestra.”
Madrona, Fall, 1971 (Seattle): “The Lady Poet” & “The L.C. Smith.”
Tennessee Poetry Journal, II:3, Spring, 1969 (Martin,TN): “A Thumb in the Mind” & “Dance of the Adolescents.”
Chiron Review , Vol. XIII, No.3, Autumn, 1994: review of A Natural Good Shot, by Leilani Wright.
New Mexico Humanities Review, Summer, 1984 (Socorro, NM): reviews of Everything That Has Been Shall Be Again, John Gilgun; I’m Amazed That You’re Still Singing, Jack Myers; Rowing Across The Dark, Franz Douskey.
New Mexico Humanities Review, Spring, 1984: review of Ruby For Grief, Michael Burkard.
Porch, IV:1, Winter, 1980 (Tempe): “From The Desk”: capsule review of five books.
Ironwood, V:7, No. 2, Fall, 1979 (Tucson): “A Depot of Light”: review of In A White Light, Michael Burkard.
Porch, II:3/4, Summer/Fall, 1979 (Tempe): “Passing It On”: review of Brother Songs, ed. Jim Perlman.
Porch, I:4, Spring, 1978 (Seattle): review of The St. Vlas Elegies, Pamela Stewart.
Porch, I:2, Summer/Fall, 1977 (Seattle): “Where The Ochre Deer Stand Frozen”: review of The Illustrations, Norman Dubie.
“TheScottsdaleProgress Saturday Magazine,” May 15, 1982: “A Conversation With James Dickey”
“The Scottsdale Progress Saturday Magazine,” October 23, 1982: “Poets and Peace,” essay on poets involved in the anti-nuclear movement.