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Heart and Soul

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Stupefied by Sonoran heat? Thick rush hour exhaust? The blather of MTV? Discouraged by the dust devil of doublespeak from the White House crew? Pick up David Appelbaum's book of poems, An Alchemist at Heart, and take a walk through the moist Eastern woods.

Like Roethke, Appelbaum looks for meaning in natural things, in the bright eye of a toad or a bird's nest woven from fiberglass insulation, wool and twigs. One of the strengths of these finely-crafted poems is Appelbaum's acute observation of the natural world. But it would be reductive to say these poems are simply observations. They read like arcane invocations--philosophical, metaphysical and sensual--and often explore a kingdom of thorns and edges.

Like Thoreau, these poems wander the woods of upstate New York pondering life and death as they seek out enlightenment in small, often despised things. In "Number," Appelbaum writes,

Teach me the simple things:
to count like the hawk
the days light finds
a window
& sky dives like a blade
to its quarry
the cliff, --
the glimmering edge
that pares brain from thought
to show
the secret death
I turn from --

Appelbaum's imagery is sharp as a serrated knife, clear and sometimes delicate as rain on an orb weaver's back. Passionate sacrificing humility, his poems, like those of mystic William Blake, are calls for us to awaken to the physical world around us, as well as to awaken our inner eye. In "Prairie Roses," Appelbaum's psyche is thrown into the alchemist's crucible as he writes,

that I walk
these bones & flesh
with fresh intent
to say the truth
imperfectly
so mindfully right
I might be a sparrow
piercing

Often deceptively quiet, these unpretentious poems are also charms against technocracy. One of my favorite poems in the collection is "Dobson Fly." The narrator finds a piece of moss on his screen door. When he tries to flick it off, a Dobson fly, "beloved / of the fisher king," catches on his finger. The description of the fly is a lovely piece of imagistic juxtaposition. "It waited to be eaten / holding still the fine filigree / of its antennae / beside the steel mandibles / & the three inches of brown rungs / turned beautifully as a turbine." When the narrator tosses it "into the sharp needles / & acid air" he watches

the insect come alive
drop awkwardly onto
the branch above my crown
burnish its armor
with a spry leg
& slowly take flight
into the murky woods
not circling back
to this only day
of its being
not caring for my thanks --

If you're looking for post-postmodern poems that key in high-tech lingo and echo our 21st-century preoccupation with the global economy, gunshots and materialism, you'll be disappointed by this alchemy of the heart and soul. But if you're tired of reading the Dow Jones and AMEX daily batting scores or another malapropism-riddled political speech, then you may well enjoy Appelbaum's poems. They will take you away from the deadening heat and into the cool mist of metaphysics.

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