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The Social Life of String by Len Gasparini
reviewed by Ryan Pastorchik

The Social Life of String
Len Gasparini
Ekstasis Editions



Resting on the rocks, horizon behind him, Len Gasparini smiles at you from the cover of The Social Life of String. The photo is a fine metaphor for Gasparini’s latest volume. The Social Life of String is a collection of memories, shared in whispers or roars, but as clear as images on film.

The intimacy with which Gasparini tells his stories is inviting. This is felt even in the first tender line of the leading poem, “Halloween, 1945,” where Gasparini begins by saying, “I remember riding on my father’s shoulders.” Gasparini then develops a child’s Halloween vision where “On front porches, jack-o’-lanterns leered, grinned, or grimaced.” This ghoulish scene does not last. Instead, Gasparini haunts us, asking “What mischievous djinn assumed the shape of a mushroom cloud?” Though we are made to contrast the innocence of childhood trick-or-treating with the radioactive fallout of nuclear war, Gasparini keeps us safe with him on his father’s shoulders.

Nostalgia plays such a prominent role in The Social Life that we feel Gasparini’s loss. “A Walk through Lanspeary Park” captures the distress tailing Gasparini as he recalls a childhood park that has been paved, surveilled, and left mute—replaced by a digital landscape. Gasparini’s ambling rhymes and adjective-sparse verse allow a clear image of Lanspeary Park to exist while keeping us just shy of complete understanding, creating a place that was, but is no more. The feeling that the environments of the past are disappearing is resurgent throughout The Social Life, shown in “memories that make the present look bleak.” Gasparini is not afraid to turn the past into poetry, but there is a constant echo chasing these thoughts, admitting that “where I belonged no longer existed.”

While Gasparini lends us his feelings of loss for the places that have been buried by time, he also shares his visions of the world in their tender forms. “Dandelion” is a striking poem that celebrates the “most familiar weed,” while also reminding me of “that inward eye” from Wordsworth’s celebration of the daffodil, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Nature is the setting of maxims and mantras. The images of “Wild Asparagus” are delicate and call to mind teenage disinterest and the lasting lessons that defeat it. As Gasparini recalls, “What did I know of nature’s laws/ or care where bobwhites built their nests? …At fourteen my mind was elsewhere.” Despite this seeming ambivalence, the moments have been saved and Gasparini tells us that “Often in thought I wander there.” With a world that is changing too fast, the memories we have are all the more important to save.

The Social Life of String offers a buffet for anyone with a tenderness for our landscape and the things that populate it—anyone looking for a serving of art will also be satisfied. Gasparini’s collection is a gallery of musings on music, painting, and poetry. Gasparini provides a commentary on the works occupying his attention. “Death and the Maiden” is a passionate reflection on the life of composer Franz Schubert. Gasparini tells Schubert’s story, syphilis and all, with honest frankness. The result is a breathy and musical vision where, “Lying there delirious, singing softly,/ the singer at last was lost in his song.” This is a poem that can be heard as well as it can be read. Inspired by “American pop-culture,” Gasparini’s art selection has an eclectic feel, nodding to the influence of Beat Generation romanticism.

Humour also makes an appearance in The Social Life of String. At 77 years old, Gasparini has taken time to reflect on not only the past, but also the unknown future. Mortality features in several poems, grouped together to form a trio of considerations that orbit around the idea of death. These raw and honest poems are immediately followed by “Le Petite Mort,” creating an abrupt shift from death to contemplative orgasm where Gasparini feels “like I am Faust/ on the Brocken”. “Easter Eve” is the next offering, a poem that puts the contrasting images of the crucifixion and copulation side by side, challenging death: “And so I resurrect myself;/ I find one sweet mortal more/ to guide my pilgrimage/ to her bright, life-giving shore.”In the face of death, Gasparini still stands erect and thrusts ahead.
Tailing his collection of poems, Gasparini concludes The Social Life of String with a pair of essays that affirm his place as both a practitioner and student of the arts. “Memories of a Raymond Souster Poem” is a requiem for a mentor and master of the “life within a life” that reveals Gasparini’s style: “the most effective style of expression is that which suggests rather than explains.” The two prose additions to The Social Life of String speak to the lifetime of study Gasparini has put into his work and should be a feature on any aspiring writer or student’s works cited page at one point or other.

The Social Life of String is a book of secrets and memories that are private and personal as well as inviting and interactive. Gasparini opens his diary and welcomes the reader to make connections between themselves and the recollections. In a letter to my high-school writing classes, Gasparini said that he was trying “to create a poetic image of reality”. A reading of The Social Life of String will demonstrate what attending to life looks like as Gasparini turns the world into poetry.

Ryan Pastorchik is a regular reviewer with PRRB. He writes from Abbotsford, B.C.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 24.