A collection of poems touches on memory, time, and place.
A retired specialist in world literature, Giskin (An Introduction to Chinese Culture Through the Family, 2001) delivers poetry that concentrates on small, impactful moments scattered across various corners of the world. Many of the sections in the collection reflect the loose sense of geography and wandering that tie the poems together, including “The City,” “Distant Skies,” and “Qin.” But even as he moves from China to “glacial valleys and small villages” in Europe, Giskin maintains a stillness in his pieces, centering them on specific memories and the sensory experiences they evoke. The millennia of history on a Greek island become a “goose-down quilt / in a / spacious house,” and a cabin from his childhood is “quietly resting / at the bottom / yet has the flavor / of wet leaves / chimney smoke / pancakes and love.” The poet also subtly explores failing memory to properly re-create moments; his apartment in New York City had an elevator he “cannot recall,” and to him, the most interesting gravestones at St. Paul’s Chapel are those that are blank, “washed clean by seasons of rain and cold.” Giskin connects this fleeting nature of memory to the immigrant experience, both through a grandmother who “could neither read nor write, / left Poland never again to see” and his own travels abroad, taking him to the Temple of Diana in Nîmes, France; the pyramids of Giza; and an earthquake in Greece. In that last example, Giskin writes of grabbing a stranger to achieve “the primal need we have to / know we are not ghosts / but flesh,” an idea that perhaps points to a weakness in the collection. His poetry is always beautifully serene—even in moments of violence or passion. But his writing becomes a long, hazy memory itself and will likely leave readers wanting something unexpected and loud to shake up the reverie. That tempest never truly arrives. The placid titles of some sections, such as “Moments,” “Autumn Winds,” and “Silent Forests,” are quite apt; readers wanting to get completely lost in such tranquil, ghostly atmospheres should appreciate Giskin’s consistency.
Elegant, subdued poems that offer a calm reflection on memory.