Landscapes of Longing by Bruce Lader
Reviewed by Seth Jani
Reviewed by Seth Jani
Bruce Lader’s Landscapes of Longing is an interesting, albeit loosely held together group of poems that roughly explore themes of love, loss, community/individualism and social justice through three different lenses: the troubled voices of contemporary urban youth; the musings of Ancient Greek gods, seers, and philosophers deliberating on the sentence of Sisyphus; and the intimate reflections of romance-obsessed couples that could easily represent any duad in modern society.
The poems are best read for their complexity of thought and observation and not necessarily for the craft itself that can sometimes feel flat and almost too concentrated.
With that said there are some amazingly beautiful lines in the book such as “ I wonder if it’s possible to describe the candescent sparkle on a crow’s feathers the way Van Gogh daubed sunlight in strands of wheat, reveal a mystery elusive as the moon ghosting mountains of cedar and cottonwood” which appears in the fantastic “Letter to William Stafford.” A brilliant and lovely poem that, however great, is one of the ones that is least related to the larger context at work.
That aside, the book opens with some great pieces of poetic empathy. We know from the notes that the author has experience teaching disadvantaged teenagers in NYC, and the first section of the book shows how the potential depths of such an experience were lost neither on the man nor the adept hand of the poet.
The opening poem “Attendance Check” is a small masterpiece of inner-city observation and there is a clever beauty to his representations of his down-and-out students “The deck of misfortune they inherited keeps shoving them to grow up the hard way, hustles them to hazardous fringes, rips off their blooming,” as well as a recognizable truth to the well-fashioned lines “A hot tide of easy dope has begun to nettle attitudes, submerge questioning minds.”
And for the next few pages increasing attention is given to these broken youth who as the poems progress begin to increasingly reflect the larger matrix of a broken society “Terrified of crime they snub glances at me think they see the devil in the flesh a black market of bad transfusions” until “they drag ass back to out of control kids in mortgaged houses rigged Alcatraz-tight sneak through security alarm systems to learn about corporate scams followed by the dawning fact of their bankrupt lives.” (A Bad Boy’s Complaint).
Section two opens out into the dark, self-interested musings of these bankrupt lives. The 13 poems that comprise it take the form of various figures from Greek mythology and history speculating on the sentence of Sisyphus.
The situation is interesting. Sisyphus, who in Greek Mythology was the first king of Corinth, was a violent and deceitful man who murdered travelers and guests and tricked and undermined the gods. Camus’ absurdist hero aside, he was not a likable figure. After enough transgressions Sisyphus was finally sentenced to an eternity in Tartarus, the deepest pit of the Greek Underworld, where he was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll immediately back down upon reaching the top.
Via the standard interpretation, he is a bankrupt creature who got what he deserved. What makes Lader’s poems a worthwhile read is how he offers contemporary perspectives that radiate a subtle relevance to our own troubled times. Many of his characters musings belie self-interest and an eagerness to accept ready-made condemnation “Is the punishment severe enough? The exercise only tones him.” (Tarpeius). Others question the legitimacy of evidence “Is he really guilty? The multilateral voice of doubt was prohibited from voting in the controversy.” (Theodora). And still others found it a necessary action to ensure the always questionable notion of the “good of the nation.” “Is he a scapegoat? Of course.” (Leucadius).
Reading these poems one cannot help but think of the endless news scandals that haunt modern day headlines: corporate executives caught red-handed and condemned to a monotonous life behind bars, fallen bigwigs that become receptacles for an entire nations shadowy depths. But what forces are really behind such indictments? What evidence was discarded? Are we better than any criminal when we turn on the nightly news and simply tune into a chorus of voices blindly shouting condemnation?
These are just some of the questions that rushed through my mind as I worked my way through the middle section of the book, which thankfully offers many interpretations, but no single answer.
The third and final section takes us back into the domain of the personal, as played out on the always tumultuous stage of domesticity and romance.
There is nothing exceptionally new or insightful in terms of these poems contents, but the 12 pieces that comprise this closing section are perhaps the tenderest and best written in the entire book, showcasing Lader’s intense devotion to craft and his ability to rewrite old themes in startlingly fresh ways. The stories are old but the language is superb “She stretches to the surface, a languid mermaid offering her mouth already fevered from fathoming kisses of a lover craving to posses her, and the husband asks, knowing their togetherness an irresistible bolero, before she floats away in a nocturnal tide of reverie to rendezvous with her love of oblivion…” (Dance of Longing)
In the end Bruce Lader’s Landscapes of Longing is not always the most innovative book, it sometimes falls into predictable patterns and though the craft can be incredible it can also sound a little too contrived and wordy, losing the natural rhythms that make poetry an experience unique from prose.
But Lader manages to pull off some amazing and difficult things. For one he writes from a place different from almost all other contemporary American poets. Creating poems fueled not by the confessional depths or natural world, but sweltering urban scenes and the outer fringes of the political podium, which rarely lends itself to good poetry. He also manages to reinvent Greek Mythology in a way that is tangible to anybody who has ever picked up the morning news, an equally difficult task.
Despite a few shortcomings, his is a noble task that has been handled with relative grace. Mr. Lader is something of a Sisyphean figure himself, writing a poetry of hard reality that prefers to continue to fight through the nitty-gritty world of matter instead of taking a one-way rocket to the vatic heights.
Though not always perfect, Landscapes of Longing is a worthwhile read that could very well be the precursor to something very unique and interesting in modern poetry. This reader will certainly keep an expectant eye on Mr. Lader’s future work.