Landscapes of Longing
Bruce Lader
Main Street Rag
ISBN Number: 978-1-59948-203-3

Reviewer: J. K. Andrews


          Poet Bruce Lader’s new collection of poems published by Main Street Rag is titled Landscapes of Longing. The cover features a twisting mosaic bench which at first glance seems to be tiled with random bits of bright, broken crockery. On closer examination, a design of color and shape emerges, mixing disparate angular elements into an organic whole.

          When asked about the book’s title and cover, Lader dismissed the question with a sweep of his hand. “The cover has nothing to do with the content,” he said. “The cover is an allusion to internal landscapes—social, political, and personal.” He went on to say that he considers Landscapes of Longing to have a three part musical structure—a symphony in three movements. In this way, Lader’s symphony of poetry is very much illustrated by the cover artwork which uses white space to connect “the silence” between the vivid hues. What at first reading appeared to be a book in which the three sections are completely unrelated is ultimately a series of poems that strive to show the complex relationships between individuals, communities, and countries.

          The first movement of Lader’s book is “Landscapes of Longing,” and it begins by exploring a particular social landscape in “Attendance Check.”
Swapping cigarettes, jabs, chips
they drift like Rockaway waves
from the boys home into the classroom,
ninth graders no one would bet on,
discarded by split parents.
          This first verse provides the reader a great deal of information It begins with action, a characteristic that helps define these boys, who are always in motion in the poem. Later in the poem, they will “grapple,” “flaunt,” and be “mauled,” “notched,” “zig-zagged,” and “nettled.” They “prowl,” “dodge,” “gamble,” and in two almost heroic instances, they pledge belonging to each other and “stay afloat in the system.”

          “Drift” is a word that reappears in several poems throughout the book, and it emphasizes Lader’s concern for people who are directionless or who are moved by the irresistible whims of forces outside of themselves. The speaker acknowledges the rough life the boys lead but also admires the ad hoc families they have become for each other.

          The verbs in “Attendance Check” do double duty, not only defining character, but also enabling the reader to visualize the fragmented, jittery dance of survival the speaker witnesses. Lader stops short of offering a facile remedy for the problems of these students. The very next poem, “Student Evaluation,” told from the point of view of one of the Rockaway boys, underscores the gap between the best intentions of the teacher and the realities of the students’ experiences.
The teacher’s a loser.
Not a scar, hands like Paris Hilton.
Believes kindness can block punches,
enemy knives that slash our blood.
          Like the teacher in the first poem, the boy speaking views others as winners or losers based on his own social currency.

          The dialogue between the two poems demonstrates Lader’s ability to write from multiple points of view with knowledge and understanding. At the close of “Student Evaluation,” it’s clear that although the teacher still clings to a scrap of hope for these lost boys, the boys see no hope for the teacher.

          The poems in “Landscapes of Longing” expand outward in focus from the school to the boys’ home, to the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and to a single family. The poem “Breaks” is superficially about a game of pool between a father and son, told from the son’s point of view.
This pool game (the only) with my father
would be different, monopolizing Sunday
evening away from his clients’ accounts.
          Here again, Lader provides immediate energy and background about the relationship between father and son. The parentheses emphasize the singularity of the event. White space is used to indicate the passage of time and to give the reader a chance to ponder. Then, the speaker muses,
In a separate season after he died,
I puzzle out why he needed to prove himself,
fight for respect, would not be friends.
          The puzzle leads to an exploration of the father’s own time as a youth in a harsh and unyielding place not unlike the one the Rockaway boys know. The very next poem, “Quandary,” is presented in the father’s voice. It too asks questions—should I comfort my bullied son or teach him how to bully?

          Lader segues from the personal and social into the political with “Agrgiento, Sicily (July 17, 1941).” The loss and grief of individuals in the bombed city could have been caused by any military command in any war. At the end of this poem, by the simple use of the two words “Sherman tank,” we discover that the US destroyed Agrigento. It’s Lader’s goal to make the reader a little uncomfortable, to push us into the realization that if your home is demolished, your friends and family killed, there are no “good guys.” The rest of the poems in this first movement are meditations on topics that range from photography and jazz funerals to the poet William Stafford.

          The second movement of Landscapes of Longing is called “Interviews Following the Sentence of Sisyphus.” Lader employs the Greek myth of Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to spend his eternity in Hades rolling a heavy stone up a hill. Each time, just before reaching the summit, the stone would roll back down, and Sisyphus would have to begin all over again.

          Lader assumes the personas of various Greek characters in order to respond to the judgment on Sisyphus. This device is effective as it gives immediate context to the ruminations of the speakers. Sibyl asks, “Was the evidence bona fide?” Antisthenes ponders, “A reliable source?” Alexander and Angelika wonder, “Were there secret deals?” Lader makes use of classical elements to suggest that the same questions are relevant today.

          The final movement of Landscapes of Longing is the section titled “Vicissitudes of Romance.” These thirteen poems return to the personal, but are more opaque than any others in the book. Whether presented in first person or third, the sense of an individual voice and experience gives authority to the verses. Take “Jig,” for instance:
No
shut up
I want you
to shut up
I said No
you’re not the only one
who can say No
you’re not the only one
          The first “no” is sharp and emphatic, but the absence of punctuation suggests that the conversation is not over. We do not hear the other person implied in the dialogue; this poem could easily represent an overheard cell phone conversation. Every line break could be a breath or a space where the unheard other is retorting. What came before or comes after the poem ends is up to speculation. As he often does, Lader leaves room for the reader to consider questions and ultimate outcomes. Even romance as illustrated in “Wedding Song” offers just enough imagery and musicality to tease.
Summer solstice and blackberries
and raspberries dangle by hairs
on exploding briars…
The first verse conjures succulence and sexual tension. The third verse:
I’ll have dinner and wine
ready by the time
she returns with the bread.
introduces the speaker and his bride with a simplicity that is as lovely and simple as “The Song of Solomon.” Yet the poem lacks the geographical and precise contextuality that mark many of the poems in the first movement of the book.

          Readers who like to connect with or understand a poem on first reading will find plenty of poems in Landscapes of Longing that do not require footnotes and academic sleight of hand. The poems address exactly what they seem to, and it is the tone, diction, and choice of details that make them work. Those readers who enjoy revisiting a poem and finding something new, some subtext or allusion, some sly dark humor not noticed during the initial read, will also find poems in the collection to satisfy them. Individual pieces may be delicate or robust. Taken together, they are joined by the poet’s obsessions just as bits of colored landscapes are joined by precision lenses in a kaleidoscope.


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