Thursday, February 11, 2010

Robert Berold, All the Days

It took me a while to warm to Robert Berold's All My Days. More than a while, in fact. Well, actually, it took something of a gap between readings.

All My Days is a slim book, as most collections are. And I like to read these things, if I can, in one single push. It gives me, it seems, a better sense of the poet, of the rhythm, of the style and voice. If the poetry is done well, I'm caught up, almost trance-like, and carried through. Done poorly, I slog it out and don't have to come back.

I didn't make it all the way through Berold's book in one go. Not because it was badly done. I'm sure something came up: such as morning, and having to get my son fed, dressed, and off to school. But I do remember being somewhat underwhelmed when I closed it up that first time.

And on a post-it note stuck to the front I scrawled, in my tight, small-cap hand: "a penchant for description by listing -- 'setting the scene'" followed by a drawn line and the rather under-enthusiastic, even wary "and then there are the thicker, chunkier, prose pieces..." (yes, ellipsis and all).

I never did warm to the latter, and it's not as if the early poems don't strike a resonant line here and there. Berold's poem, "Beloved", opens with "Love burnt both of us. / Now rain falls in this scorched place. / I lean into your gravity" (26).

But it's later in the collection that things started clicking for me. "Night shift Hangzhou" doesn't quite make it as a whole -- the second stanza works a little too hard at mimicking the scene Berold is trying to describe -- but the first three lines crackle: "Down, down, below zero, and the wind biting, / I am almost falling asleep on my feet. I imagine / summer in South Africa, sizzling with electric fences" (44). The lines break just right on the page and in the reading; the opposites oddly, and effectively, echoing one another. Those three lines are masterfully done.

"Proposal" is cute (but in a playful, not saccharin, sense) and familiar; and "To myself at 20" (55) might very well be one of the better poems I've read, opening:
I think of myself in Ingrid's bedroom,
under that poster of Bonnie and Clyde
with dark rings under my eyes,
while her mother wept continuously
and her brother muttered threats.
He manages to capture the bravado, fear, and utter cluelessness of youth. And that still sort of stings.

All My Days has been reviewed elsewhere by Kobus Moolman and Vonani Bila, in both cases glowingly and in enviable depth.

This is the fourth collection of Berold's -- and I'll be reading all four (bought in South Africa last October). In reverse. So a bit of me was expecting... whiz bang? I wanted to love it. Some I do. I should probably re-read the whole. When I go back to look at all four together, I will.

This time in one sitting.