P. H. (Peter) Liotta built his fourth collection of poems (not counting the ones he translated; his The Ruins of Athens won the Garden Street Poetry Prize and the third was published only in Macedonian) over a quarter century. Quale Press (www.quale.com) brought the book out this summer. Neat and glossy in brown wraps with photo inset on the front, THE GRAVEYARD OF FALLEN MONUMENTS is 8.25 inches wide, and only 7.25 inches high: ideally structured for the long lines within. Liotta, a former Fulbright Artist-in-Residence in Yugoslavia and an NEA Fellow in Poetry, is a professor of humanities at Salve Regina. There, he also directs the Pell Center of International Relations and Public Policy.
But don't let the string of qualifications suggest that his poems will be intellectual excercises. Instead, they provide compelling narratives where people and their surroundings hover in moments of light that enhance their significance. Many are prose poems; some are sequences of couplets; and a few are crossover creations. Almost all demand attentive peeling back of the layers of allusions.
Here's one of the three paragraphs of Liotta's prose poem "Why I Will Not Write About a Failed Marriage":
What was I thinking? That dawn, I carried the broken carcass of a dog, a shepherd, and wanted to offer her to the yawn of the sea. Hours before, I had found her at the edge of the road, heard the whimper of pain, saw her swimming in blood. You son of a bitch, the old man had screamed: You killed my dog! My wife and me, we loved that mongrel like a child. I heard him whimper, too, when she died. She died for love.
Liotta's poem then repeats that he in fact had not killed the dog, merely found her at the edge of a road -- but the old man never grasps that difference. "I took the dead thing in my car, carried it in my arms to the sea. We died for love."
Though this poem is labeled "East Quoddy Head, Maine," many of the others in the collection were written in the republics that have replaced the former Yugoslavia, and in their neighboring nations such as Greece. Liotta's outreach extends to the terrain, the languages, and the people of the Balkans, the Middle East, the fragmented mountainous terrain of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia. He brings Vienna to the pages with "Wittgenstein's House" and "The Study of Freud," prose poems whose extended width on the page makes them appear short and intense -- and intense, they certainly are.
The collection's three sections -- The Fury Alecto; Broken Sonnets; and Snow Pouring Through Absence -- echo three epigraphs from Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus." Its title is shared by a "graveyard" of sculptures in Moscow, where the statues of the Soviet era huddle. Liotta writes that the final draft of the collection "began in Dusanbe, Tajikistan, and ended at Villa Aventino in Rome."
Although sections one and three are meaty and worth digesting slowly, it's the center section that forms the heart of the book. Within the Broken Sonnets section is a single 24-page poem titled "The Ghazal of Memory." Fourteen subsections of the poem are each headed with a Greek letter and formed of long couplets, lines ten metric feet long, heavily enjambed, resonant, lush. But it's the narrative of the piece that stuns: the trail of a near-fatal ascent of Iran's symbolic (mythic) Mout Damavand. Despite the "ghazal" proclamation in the title, the form is without refrain or obvious rhyme, and even its rhythms are fractured, with half steps tucked in like scrabbling boots on stones. And only the special format of the physical book can frame the long lines adequately, although I'll try to show them here by specifying that what follows is five couplets on the book's ample pages:
bruise the crested Elburz mountains, harsh, neglecting dusk blooding snow-peaked slopes. On
the runway and taxi paths men swept the asphalt bare, pendulums of brooms swinging in an
orchestrated concentration to clean the dusk, the air around. There is a lake at the mountain's
summit. The mountain's name is Damavand. The lake of ice is a mirror. North from the Caspian,
it calls. Across the vast expance, a stranger waves: my father. Distant, the long customs
corridor frames his agile height. There is a lake at the mountain's summit. The mountain's
name is Damavand. The lake of ice is a mirror. North from the Caspian, it calls. My mother
does not know me, my hair blond from a San Diego summer course (training with the nation's
finest: U.S. Navy) in underwater demolition. There is a lake at the mountain's summit. The
mountain's name is Damavand. The lake of ice is a mirror. North from the Caspian, it calls.
This is the principal section of the poem to insinuate the flavor of ghazal through such repetition; the others, however, bring back fragments of the "refrain" and carry the hiker into a demanding landscape of ice, temperatures twenty below, thin atmosphere, fierce differences among people who can barely speak enough common language to communicate the essentials. And among the essentials on this ascent are visions, threats, fear, fire and ice. The speaker recalls asking his soldier father, "And how many did you kill when you were there?" The reply chills as much as the ascent of the mountain. Dawn and darkness alternate, and the local guide apears vanishes, appears, vanishes ... and at the crest, "I pulse for air I breathe I fall I see images unfold impossible Escher-like the world as normal..."
The long lines, like the long swings of the effortful climb, craft a back and forth of what's real and what's true, what's vision and what's visionary. Eventually Liotta demands, "Open your life, stranger; let me in." And he concludes with "unmeasured space where one language shares the silence with another." Last on the page is the itinerary of the poem's creation: Tehran, Iran; Ithaca, New York; and Ithaka, Greece.
There is much more to read, reread, sort through for symbols both American and Eastern. Complicating and deepening the collection is the mystery of the poet's belief structure, which entwines early Christian motifs with Greek ones, as in the poem "Resurrection of the Christ Figure," which concludes:
The Owl of Minerva perched at the Savior's shoulder. O, the lashing of tongues tied to the mast, the weeping for joy.
It would be good, I think, to spend an evening in conversation with this poet. But it will be at least as satisfying to spend more evenings with his book.