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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"SEASONS IN THE RAVINE" by P. J. Laska--Book Review

Laska, P. J. 2017 Seasons In The Ravine A Suite Of Poems (Bedford, NH Igneus Press)

On February 25, 2017, I made my usual trip to the mail box expecting to find my usual nondescript collection of junk mail and bills to find a small manila envelope with the Arizona return address of my long time friend and mentor, P. J. Laska.  Naturally, my assumption was that it would be a book or pamphlet of some kind and I knew it would be both interesting and pertinent to these times and my life.  When I opened the package, my sense of surprise was raised to even higher levels.  It contained a copy of "Seasons In The Ravine A Suite Of Poems" which I had not known was due for release.  I immediately sent Laska a message of thanks and began fitting the book into my heavy pile of current reading, most of which is politically motivated these days.  I figured I deserved a break from my recent fare and began reading the book, as I do all poetry, in short sessions with only a few poems at a time to improve my retention, appreciation, and understanding of the material.  The book contains a suite of 22 poems (actually 20 interconnected poems and 2 addenda based on the Dao De Jing and other Oriental poetry and philosophy).  The poems were written more than a decade ago when Laska was still living in Beckley, WV, where I first met him in 1974 just after he became a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.  His home in Beckley was located on a residential street which placed it directly behind Jimmy's Place, a small bar and Beckley institution for more than fifty years.  Laska's lot was on a steep hillside which placed his front door at street level and the lot immediately plummeted to the little stream far below which divided his property from that of Jimmy's Place.  His house was composed to two stories and a basement which was earth sheltered on the street side and open to the sun on the ravine side.  The peak of the roof must have been more than forty feet from the ground.  This description does not seem to bode well for a place to live but it was perfect for a Buddhist poet.  The lot dropped off from the street to the stream and was shaded by numerous tall trees.  The stream usually ran water most of the year and, combined with the trees, it made a wonderful habitat for birds, small game, and stray cats.  Laska built a small gazebo like hut just above the high water line and used it for meditation and writing.  It was an ideal situation except for the persistent possibility that one might break a neck descending from the street to the hut.  The ravine and the trees also served to profoundly baffle the traffic noise from the major thoroughfare on which Jimmy's Place sits. 

P. J. Laska Photo By Roger D. Hicks

In that environment, Laska wrote the poems contained in "Seasons In The Ravine...".  He has told me that he was working to capture the flow of the seasons in that secluded spot in which he spent most of his time in those days.  The poems begin in spring and end in winter.  They are woven from cloth made of trees, birds, Buddhism, stray cats, and solitude.  They are excellent poetry and I have told Laska himself they contain some of the finest writing I have seen from him in years.  They prove that a committed man can find peace and solitude within earshot of a popular West Virginia watering hole.  They prove that an observant person can learn much about life and the world while seeking solitude.  They reflect Laska's long interest in Chinese poetry and the Dao. They are well worth reading but if you want to own a copy you need to contact Igneus Press sometime soon.  It is a limited edition.  If you do not obtain a copy very soon, you will find it only in selected libraries and personal collections.  I will not loan my copy. 

Roger D. Hicks & P. J. Laska Photo By Candice Hicks

My personal favorites among the poems, which are numbered and untitled, are #4, #12, #13, and #16.  Those poems are woven together to tell stories about a poet, a long dead baby, a one-eyed tomcat, and life.  In #4, we find the poet:
"Reaching in with gloved hand, he rubbed

the name and date of a child that died before
           the age of one."

Then the poet allows the seasons to flow with their myriad gifts until we find him in #12 climbing out of the ravine toward home accompanied by a one-eyed tomcat whom he has named Marco Polo.

         "The abbot admired the one-eyed wanderer
          living his last season in retirement, and fed
          him from the bag he kept behind the door."

In #12, the poet (for many years Laska has been "the abbot" in his poetry) has bonded with a wandering one-eyed tomcat.  In my personal experience, many of the poets I have known and loved best  have been a great deal like wandering tomcats finding love, poems, and a life somewhere along an unscheduled and unpredictable road.  The sharing of food, whether with a new human friend or a wandering tomcat, is always a major step forward in a relationship, especially in the hills of Appalachia and Raleigh County. Poem #12 also shows us a deepening of the relationship between a tomcat and a poet who are both enjoying those shady days near the end of an unpredictable road in a quiet ravine where peace, understanding, and friendship are possible. 

 In #13, we find Marco Polo " wandering the silk road..." and we learn that "...It's because the small is great that hawks and owls know that the mice will continue to thrive."  Such poetry, such observation of the natural world, and such melding of that natural world into one's understanding of the human world is a great deal of what separates great poets like Laska from ordinary men who only admire the hawks, owls, and tomcats from a distance. 

Poem #16 brings us to "the frozen wanderer stiff as a board" after a snowy night and

the abbot took him to the lot of the empty house
across the stream, where he stumbled on the child's headstone. R.I.P for Marco.
a certain fate, an oracle of bones.
If you don't find him on the hill,
look in the ravine. In time
their skeletons may intertwine
and stay still while the land works
its changes..."

It is writing like that which separates poets from transcribers.  It is observation of nature like that which separates naturalists from hikers.  It is that kind of melding with one's environment which might one day  save the planet.  I would strongly suggest that you contact Igneus Press and purchase your copy of the limited edition of "Seasons In The Ravine A Suite Of Poems" by P. J. Laska.  And to repeat myself, I will not loan my copy.  Thank you, Pete! 

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