Canadian Poetry Review

current issue
featured poet
poem of the week
lives of the poets
poetry near you
about us
contact us

Drawing the Shade by Michael Rothenberg
reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Drawing the Shade
Michael Rothenberg
Illustrations by Donatella D’Angelo
Dos Madres Press Inc.


The title of this book works on several levels, and the book draws on several traditions, both Modernist and Post-Modernist. On the one hand, it’s a straightforward series of five poetic journal entries, mixing realistic demotic prose with lyric observations in mellifluous transcendent verse. On the other hand, it frequently shifts from post-modern open form to modernist lyric-narrative. It’s a long poem/ journal, deploying both imagist and projectivist verse strategies, and even breaks into one-act play dialogue and expressionist sound poetry word play.

Fun is perhaps the best operant description – or playful – as it becomes clear the poet has his demons to ward off as well as trying times and events to document.
The first thing the title made me think of was a traditional mourning period after a funeral. Drawing the drapes. Shutting off computer, radio, TV, stereo, and turning one’s back on material things, going into a period of reflection, deep meditation in honor of one’s dead relation or friend.

Later, we learn from the proceedings, that the poet’s grandmother is dying and the Jewish practice of Shiva is advised, that his poet/mentor, Joanne Kyger, is also looking death in the face and the author himself is at a low ebb dealing with her literary affairs and going through writer’s block and depression of his own. The elegiac tone is broken up with observations of the quotidian in plain language. In imagistic description of landscape and daily encounters with fresh faces.

Another possible meaning is the idea of drawing out the shades. Making the demons visible. Confronting one’s invented self with re-invention and travel. Staring down the shades of death. The poet, born in Miami Beach in 1951, moves to the San Francisco Bay area, travels to Cuba, and returns to his early life in Lake Jackson in Tallahassee, Florida. His mentors say travel. Initially, to awaken his senses to new experience, to work on the input channels. The poet too is no longer middle-aged, after all, and feels a need to make peace the domestic demands of the country of everyday, while maintaining his devotion to his art, to somehow show how that can be done by celebrating both the long and short gaze at the quotidian.

A tail-end Baby Boomer like myself, the poet was just getting started at the end of the Beat and Black Mountain eras, but draws from the proprioceptive ways of the open form long poem and lyric peregrinations of Olson and Creeley and the long line yawp and comic confessions of Ginsberg, Corso, et al. A self-styled Zen Cowboy as language poet Ron Silliman refers to him in his cover blurb.

I wasn’t familiar with the term, but it seems apt somehow. The notion of how to reconcile the observances of a materialist, capitalist life style with the emotional/ spiritual need to transcend the language invention of the self is ground zero here.

Even the titles of the five sub-sections of the book seem to speak of the rip rap slabs of twenty-first century North American peripatetic wanderings: Grown Up Cuba, Drawing the Shade, The Man Inside, Stargazers, and Hurricane.

Knowing when to close the drapes on the glare of the media sun, when to turn one’s back on Dionysian alternate states of consciousness and entertainment and focus on the inner man, and grow old with an Apollonian grace, that may be the enterprise that grips all of us baby boomers in our retirement years.

Finally, a word about the illustrations. On the cover and before each section break, Ms D’Angelo’s lovely nude acrobats tumble in head-protecting somersaults through the various stages of life. Adam (?) feint/shoves against Eve(?) as they walk to the exit of the frame, a pelican flanking her, a small bird between them, A nude female with a tiny bird on her back practices a stretching exercise before a male companion. Two nude young men console one another, one offering his hand, the other in the thinker position. A man offering his boy the planet Saturn. Always the little I-told-you-so bird standing in mute testimony of the scene. Neo-surreal, symbolic, emblematic … . Read into the image what you will: they offer. the same whimsical sense of play as the poetry.

Richard Stevenson has recently retired from a thirty-year gig teaching at Lethbridge College. His most recent books are a long poem sequence, Rock, Scissors, Paper: The Clifford Olson Murders (Dreaming Big Publications, USA, 1916) and A Gaggle of Geese (haikai poetry, Alma Press, U.K.)

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 23.