Wednesday, October 17, 2018
WOBBLY-SABI: A BOOK REVIEW
The book’s title, of course, is a gentle play on the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which Browne, in his Preface, describes as comprising “a taste for earthy, every day, unpretentious objects, preferably made out of natural materials.” It’s about a kind of Zen simplicity, an absence of decorative intent and–for me–includes the notion of imperfection, the crack (as Leonard Cohen put it) “where the light comes in.” “Wobbly” is what happens to us as we age, and these are the poems of a man of… let’s say respectable age.
They are also the poems of a man who has suffered the loss of a deep and abiding love–well, two actually, and probably more, as you will discover, but one of them a true life’s love–and who is contemplating the eventuality of his own death with… let’s not call is resignation, let’s describe it rather with the word I used before: serenity. That I was so deeply moved may have to do with the reality that I have arrived at the same place in my life, and share with this poet the aspiration to experience the approach of age and death with Buddhist-inspired realism and equanimity. Which is simple, yes, but not always so easy as one would wish!
So these are love-poems, age-poems, death-poems. They explore every corner of the mind and heart. They are thought-ful, in that they ask the reader to investigate ideas about the ultimate meaning of life that disguise their depth and complexity in the teasing simplicity of the Zen koan–ideas that defy analysis and for which there is no answer and no explication. They are heart-ful in inviting us to experience the profundity of feeling, principally grief, which is pervasive, but made bearable by sudden flashes of humor and self-deprecation; but also pain, and fear, and the occasional burst of anger; and above all, subtly, joy: the joy of love experienced, of boyhood days remembered, of companionship and contact.
And–this is key in my experience of Browne’s poems–the exquisite joy that is to be found in the potential beauty of each present moment, no matter how dire the circumstances that surround it. Browne’s love of natural beauty, the beauty of being human, of the universe, of our fellow-creatures breathes the subtle joy of life itself into every poem. His luminous evocations of a flower or bird, a simple garden, a sea- or landscape immerse us in the extraordinary privilege of being alive. His words–as words in good poems should–engage, delight, and focus our attention. They dance–a favorite word of his–with understated rhymes and rhythms, surprise us with the memory of a sudden familiar quotation or reference from a hazy literary past, bring us to a halt with the odd colloquialism or with–OMG!–a humorous jab at Internet jargon.
And–just in case I have failed to make this clear–the essence of this book is expressed in the one word: love. It’s a love that is all-embracing and unequivocal in the generosity of its spirit. The book is a celebration of the most distinctively human of all values, an ode–albeit an elegiac ode–to life well lived, and a timely reminder that the important things are always close to hand, if only we can learn to stop for long enough (carpe diem!) to pay attention. In view of which, it behooves me now go back and read with greater attention to these poems myself.