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The Darkened Temple by Mari L’Esperance

The Darkened Temple

By Mari L’Esperance

University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London

Published in 2008

ISBN 978-0-8032-1847-5


The poet’s page on Poets & Writers: http://www.pw.org/content/mari_lamp039esperance

Richly textured and admirably diverse in its structures, Mari L’Esperance’s collection of poems, The Darkened Temple, stuns as it edifies a craving for depth in modern poetry.

Many of the poems center on the poet’s experience of abandonment by and desire to hold on to her mother, who was born in Japan, and who disappeared when the poet was a child.

From “Forgetting”:

The garden that you loved has folded into itself,

the rotting blooms and stems so much litter in the dirt.

The empty bird feeder glints and sways in the sun,

freed of its purpose.

What is left of you, Mother, threatens to break apart

at the edges, a thin outline already losing its shape.

Other poems branch out from this experience to explore related ideas and incidents.

From “In the Valley of the Kings,” which begins with a note about a Canadian woman who fell into a tomb while hiking in Egypt. The poet imagines the woman’s dying thoughts:

Kiss the children for me. Tell them

I have found the door to the next world.

Tell them I am entering history.

It seems endemic for this poet to question and excavate memories gathered long ago. She is equally thorough in her examination of emotions that set apart the abandoned child: frustration, fear, regret, distrust, resignation, intense longing for connection. That L’Esperance relies so much on personal experience for her content without making us feel excluded or drawn into a too-close intimacy, is a tribute to her skill as a poet.

From “The Dollmaker,” one of L’Esperance’s most exquisite poems:

Long before I knew what would become of you,

I sat at the kitchen table, your small daughter,

while you fashioned their brilliant robes

Out of colored rice paper: persimmon,

indigo, mustard, silver and gold leaf . . .

. . . Black crepe became hair

coiled in the style of the old Edo, adorned

with a  splash of crimson. Here my mind’s eye

falters, struggles to complete the image––

and then I remember: the dolls were faceless

. . . .

Still other poems conjure the emotional landscape of loss and abandonment: “After Reading of the Expatriate Writer’s Death by Shipwreck, Margaret Fuller, 1850”; the folkloric “The Bush Warbler Laments to the Woodcutter”; “Longing”; and perhaps my favorite of the entire collection, “As Told By Three Rivers,” an extraordinary work about settling into place.

Breadth of skill surprises here in structural diversity. L’Esperance is a master of the lyrical couplet, but shows equal potency in the prose poem, the pantoum, and a variety of free verse. Her imagery distills and tantalizes: “hairline ridges that form on the skin of sour milk” (“Stroke”); cooking pots “filled with snails and rainwater” (“Another History); bombs like “hothouse blooms crackling in a seething sky” (“Kamakura”). It would be hard to imagine tighter line breaks.

Small wonder that this collection was selected by Hilda Raz for the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. L’Esperance displays power and authority in her lines, the softest eye imaginable, and a very sharp knife in her grasp of imagery.

Too self-referential? Some may think so. I found the controlled intensity of these verses moved the sense into reach of anyone seeking poetry that sustains both thought and feeling. I strongly recommend this collection for practicing poets, the general public, as a teaching text, and a library acquisition.

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