Essays — December 23, 2013 13:46 — 0 Comments

A Deep But Dazzling Darkness – Philip Kobylarz

(on the book by Constance Rowell Mastores, Blue Light Press, 2013 $15.95) 

Writers seem to know a thing or two about darkness. “It’s dark out there and lasts a long time” so said Jim Harrison and Rumi mused that “darkness is your candle”. The caliginosity to which Constance Rowell Mastores blends into luminous verse is a shade difficult to easily explain.

It is similar to the backlighting of a Francis Bacon portrait or to the negative/positive play of a Man Ray photogram. Hers is a unique perspective of joy batiked into swathes of the tragic. As a persona, she assumes the role of Delphic Oracle yet her verse also claims a closer to earth tonality of a voyeur of the quotidian who, in observing the ordinary, converts it into poetic thrill.

She possess a bio most scribblers would covet. A professional ballerina who studied under the ardent Madame Preobrazhenskaya in Paris. A teacher of English at Berkeley. A self-confessed sometimes recluse and scholar of Comparative Literature. It is perhaps her impressive life experience that gives her verse a certain gracefulness that in language spins the reader’s mind like the legendary Fouette pirouetté. With a dancer’s precision and stamina, she directs us to a heretofore ineffable perceptions of what the darkness that surrounds us ironically illuminates.
In a poem early in the collection, a stance is struck during a contemplation of the natural world wrought with the possibility of beauty’s contrasting forms. There is a spider, a storm, a constellation, a hillside house: all the makings of a momentary eternity. In a rendering of winter reverie, the speaker by gist of keen observation transforms into Jungian archetype:

When Orion sets, the spider disappears.
It hates the day. She loves the day,
but more and more she finds herself
waiting for that time of night when the spider
drops outside her window; for that time
of being when she appears before
them both and becomes part of the frame-
work, part of the scheme: Woman-Housed-

The transformative nature of being scintillates throughout many of the pages, urging the reader deeper into the obscurity. But it is a blackness not obscurifying, rather, one that contains all colors mixed into one singular profundity.

There is often the Rilkean wish for that proverbial change, or even oblivion, that provides an often symphonic dramatic backdrop. Desire cast in the thematic veiling that cloaks ecstasy’s fickle promise:

Shy creatures inhabit sanctuaries– a statue
amid tendrilous leaves pursues with a sideways
glance a dream of her own undoing; a nun shelters
doubt under a coppice of umbrella trees.
And we are inferences, abstractions, shadows:
partings that are no longer partings, but gathering
in a loose wind, sailboats that glide on fresh water
to waiting nurses calling from the other shore–
the children regretful that this is so, regretful
to see adventure lose its way and come to harbor;
the wind used, but hardly used– a closed book.

A certain sturm und drang does inhabit these pages that also feature an elegiac series to the poet’s mother, European travelogues, and meditations on the folly of youth, and on classical art. We garner a sense that the poetess savors the view from the epic abyss and does not shy from leading us to its edge, pointing out it potency, and all the while, seducing us with its annihilative beauty.

This aspect enlivens the poems with a Gothic sensibility and an utterly sinister playfulness. In the end, which is always near, her nouveau Romantic aesthetic reminds us that oblivion is just another word for forgetting.Elegantly, in a poem titled “Aftermath” she concludes with an exemplary rhetorical question civilization and all of its poets from antiquity to modernity have failed to answer: “What is this temple we call the past?”

Constance Rowell Mastores knows exactly what it is but in true Romantic fashion, she refrains from speaking the answer. It is our endeavor to name that darkness that she has most brilliantly revealed to be full of light.


Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry series. The author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France, he has a collection of short fiction and a book-length essay forthcoming.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney