Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Book Review - This Side of the Fire by Jonathan Maule

This Side of the Fire by Jonathan Maule

Reviewed by Greg Gilbert, Professor Emeritus/Trustee, Copper Mountain College, Joshua Tree, California


How many times did I set this book down, mid-poem, at a phrase, an image, and stare into my own depths, lost within the sharp profundity of the moment? Page after page, no decorative contrivances, but poetry as scalpel, filleting layers of memory to translucence. Maule does not spare himself nor the reader. His poetry is a stunning mix of self-evisceration, absurdist humor, beauty, and insights. He asks, “Have you ever witnessed the death of your ego? / a complete oyster-shuck detachment of self?” He convinces himself “that everything abandoned / is kin,” and we, the audience, are drawn into his complex singularity, a dynamic unity as varied as a clenched fist or an instant of exultation.


This Side of the Fire is comprised of four sections and opens with “Letters to Red,” epistolatory poems that strive to fill the negative space left by his sister: “my mind is not a cage / I can render you here.” He can see her “bringing water to a child / or tucking bullets into the sleep of a magazine.” The author asks, “would I trade you being gone / for what I’ve written?” He says, “I never gave you […] a poem you may fold / into a star.” “Letters to Red” are at once penance and absolution, poems that broke my heart and spilled love into me.


Section II, “Idaho,” serves up the artist as a young man “who blew up mailboxes [and] said so many / stupid things to young women.” The poetry is spare and unsparing while recalling the suicide of “S,” “Anyway, we’re all headed for more death and words.” Maule recalls the summer his father came home after flying over “oceans of Sitka spruce” looking for oil leaks, their days cutting linoleum, roofing, and then the separation, how he “watched him fly away / a coin sinking into the well of the sky.” He writes of his mother who “sang hymns / stirred butter into macaroni / and with the same wooden spoon / played him like a drum.” Memories unspool, truancy from Boise High, boys being boys, nights “pitching empties like sardines,” “a fur of cannabis and pills.” And young Jonathan Maule performing his music at the white Baptist church, “no backbeat, nothing in the shape of a gift / for women and their hips.” The first two sections move us through time, a retrospective of loss and of a young man trying to find his way.


Section III, “California,” and the author has migrated to Hollywood where he waits tables, where “Truth is whatever gets repeated,” and “Every scar is a story.” In Hollywood, he finds himself “fighting upstream with trays of sloshing martinis,” and he finds himself in Wilcox Station, “In a jail cell” and, perhaps once again, invoking his sister, “Suppose I thought of you then / in the falling.” In these moments of samsara, the memory of his sister, or perhaps of “the young man / I nearly killed,” brings him to himself, a theme symbolized by the “stillness” of another prisoner, an unknown helper who “reclines on his bunk / with a copy of the Times.” Maule writes of a stone basin, “the idea of water,” and life where one subsists on “the food of a simple lie: we will be ok / we will be ok.” This mantra to survival, we learn, is a preamble to his subsequent confinement in the Twin Towers, the twins being the world’s largest jail facility and the world’s largest mental health facility, a place where “there are no clocks / so time dies the way it does in a casino.” There, his poems evince a hunger for drugs, “…the wrinkled flag / of a wrecked balloon,” the abyss that must surely fuel the author’s rebirth.


The California section shifts from the Twin Towers to the Hi-Desert, an abrupt transition employing the deus ex machina like miracle of a graduate degree. Maule is teaching composition at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center where he asks “young Marines to imagine their enemies.” He has made a home “next to a blown-out chicken coop.” His proximity to the Base recalls Hollywood, “the night after we carry a / sidewalk couch back to our apartment / we wake to a helicopter / and god’s swinging eyeball.” And he asks the irreducibly poignant question, “what does it mean / that I never know / where the shooting is coming from?” He writes of “the worn logo on god’s gunnysack,” and declares, “The next time I’m arrested / may it be for corrupting the youth.”


The fourth and final section is appropriately titled “CODA,” and leaves us experiencing the final circle of his, of our, shared journey.

This Side of Fire is a hero’s journey, departure, initiation, and return. Jonathan Maule returns to discover his higher innocence and the gift of the goddess, the first-person-plural that remains grounded in the world, “waiting for our dogs to urinate.” While at the Marine Base, Jonathan has become the teacher, the guide for others, the logos for those who are experiencing their own departures.


This Side of the Fire is the winner of the 2020 Hillary Gravendyk Regional Poetry Prize from the Inlandia Institute. His work is available at https://www.jonathanmaule.com/books. Jonathan lives in the high desert with his partner, writer and visual artist L.I. Henley.

Other work from Jonathan Maule: Dog Star, Poetry (2015) and Whole Night Through, Soundtrack (2020)

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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