Review by Deborah Fleming
Southern China, Tibet, Thailand, and Qatar are some places Diana Woodcock has called home. What we learn in her new collection of lyrics about the Arabian peninsula, Under the Spell of the Persian Nightingale, is to put away preconceptions about the desert and learn to embrace a new way of seeing a landscape we thought barren but which is an ecosystem rich with sensory detail which has much to teach us about beauty as well as economy. This is no utopian hideaway, however; we have to look past oil rigs and pipelines in order to perceive the birds and flowers, and we are reminded that we all have to be vigilant about protecting every ecosystem from the ravages of industrialism.
The speaker, a “guest/ trying not to be invasive” (“Seduced in the Desert”) as she ventures into the dunes, shows how the human spirit open to observation and acceptance can become one with a place. Lush images describe an exotic landscape of birds, flowers, and insects (particularly the white-cheeked bulbul—the nightingale of the title—and the sidra tree, which invites meditation like the Buddhist bodhi) thriving in seemingly inhospitable conditions. These poems engage our senses as we hear shamal winds blowing, owls calling, and larks singing in mangrove and acacia leaves; taste the sweetness of dates; view desert flowers like hyacinth, campion, and rock rose opening.
“Persian Nightingale” evokes love and loss through a journey across water to an exotic place reminiscent of “Sailing to Byzantium,” but instead of Yeats’s old man desiring to withdraw into a world of unchanging art, the speaker of this poem discovers enchantment in the “sad beauty” of the desert and discovers “powers/ and magic” in the “folds of feathers of this// exquisite mystic,” embracing the beauty of the world as it is. In “The Hardy Ones” Woodcock subverts Robert Frost as she voices appreciation of wild flowers like the caper plant and desert truffle, “steadfastly noble in their earnest labors/ convincing anyone who’ll kneel at their roots/ a lifetime’s not long enough to seek out/ the blooming sages of the most desolate places.”
The writings of Basho, Rumi, and Thoreau are literary ancestors. While “Bardo” declares that grace is lacking in the midst of plenty, “Living in the Margins” shows how austerity instructed the prophets, and “Hakeem’s Farm” describes the speaker’s awareness of the creation of memories while enjoying abundance and hospitality on a thriving desert farm where guests are considered to be emissaries of God.
In “Recitation for the Fatiha for the Dead” the woman speaker acknowledges that the desert itself taught her that she must be one with the women of the world (especially China, Africa, and India) who do not enjoy the right of self-determination, yet most of the time she can do little more than blasphemously recite for them the fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an recited as a prayer only for learned or pious men, never for women.
Woodcock employs a rich variety of onomatopoeia and internal rhyme to endow the free verse poems with form. In “Not Born in this Desert” she writes “Not desert-born, yet I refuse to scorn flat terrain,/ sparse vegetation, lack of rain” and “maybe someone/ is listening, missing the sight of sun glistening/ on the backs of a flock of flamingos in mangroves.”
“Desert Dare” makes clear that loving the desert means taking risks as it exhorts the reader imaginatively to “Take a chance—/brave sandstorms,/ mirages, dunes that shift,/ seering silence, Sand vipers,/ a million blazing stars/ keeping you awake at night.” The walker in the desert must “Have faith the nearest oasis/ is just over the next dune,/ there’s still time to join/ the maji’s caravan.” With an image reminiscent of Shelley’s “To a Skylark” the speaker must be grateful “When the Desert lark darkens/ the sun’s stark stare” and sweeps across the dunes “into shade of sidra tree.” Finally, the walker/watcher/listener must, like Shelley’s poet, “ascend like Desert lark/ on the shamal wind just/ at that moment when the sun/comes strolling over the dunes—//a flame of love to set your heart/ and hair on fire.”
“Desert Bound,” the final poem, reveals a capacity for compassion and generosity as it weaves a “karmic tapestry” of gifts, “no weed unwelcome.”
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 4.
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