A Review of
Bower Lodge: Poems
Paul J. Pastor
Reviewed by Erin Feldman
To read Paul J. Pastor’s collection of poems Bower Lodge is to enter a hidden kingdom rife with paradox. “You are not only what is seen,” says the speaker in “And So Under,” the book’s opening poem. Rather, “underfoot / you lie entire” (23). But to see this “you” requires that one travel beside the Wanderer and his Embalmer, and, like him, seek the “unwelcome sleep of Bower Lodge … that dread place set like death / in the heart of the river” (25).
The Wanderer’s journey to and from the Bower Lodge establishes the arc of the collection; the Wanderer steps into the lodge where he sleeps, dreams, and eventually wakes (part one, two, and three, respectively). His journey parallels others, notably, the final days of Easter: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. (The journey also corresponds with Dante’s Divine Comedy, with its descent to hell, pause in purgatory, and ascent to paradise. Neither the Wanderer nor Dante necessarily desire their first, necessary step, yet they take it, accompanied by a guide. The Wanderer describes his Embalmer as “lovely and implacable” (25), which seems an apt description for both her and Virgil.) Each part, or section, contains a poem dedicated to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—the Easter Triduum—while simultaneously enacting them. The Wanderer, this kingdom insists, must die to live.
Paradox—such as life from and through death—serves as the heart of Pastor’s collection, perhaps even more so than the narrative arc. In this hidden, upside-down kingdom, fish speak with the wisdom of heaven. The Wanderer responds to the Fish of Heaven’s question, “Why the long jaw?” with a list of sorrows and disappointments, and the Fish replies:
If that is all, he said,
do you think you’ll get around
to catching me? (54)
Even a relative, the one “of whom / we do not speak” (56), offers insight to the one who seeks it:
every couple years, you’ve creaked back
down. You see him sitting in the halfway
flicker from the hole in that old ground,
eating richly from piles of black caviar.
He laughs. Down goes up. You’re missing out,
young one. The rod bends underground,
as he pulls for his strange catch, stripping
line off the reel into the soil, buzzing,
singing pure joy as he hauls
the impossible fish. (56)
In seeking it, the Wanderer finds that “death is not the same / as expiration” (60):
a clarity of being,
a last enunciation
that starts again anew.
So listen—die well
in the bower of the river.
Let it wash you of yourself;
then treasure what is left. (60)
Another paradox that emerges in the collection concerns joy and grief. The two intermingle and cannot be separated. The Wanderer begins to comprehend this reality while contemplating the sea:
Does sand struggle as it shrinks?
Do waves weep as they die on the shore
with laughter, with the wine-dark hymns? (36)
He registers the reality in many poems but returns to it most clearly in the poems “Joy (Chemical Wedding)” (52), “Joy, Which I Once Called a Bayonet” (97), and “Joy, Spilled Freely From Love’s Red Obelisk” (110). In these poems, joy and grief, love and sorrow, death and life are one and the same. The Wanderer says in “Joy, Spilled”:
For isn’t love like ours a crippling thing?
Its leaping is the leaping of a slaughtered lamb;
its singing is the singing of a strangled fish
tossed high up on the sand, for whom the foreign element
is death, is twenty deaths, all gasping with broad ecstasy,
my God my God O why have you forsaken me?
But this is still the joy, the holy and divine appointment,
pressed hot into the hand all wonderful and bleak. (110)
Other elements hold Pastor’s collection together, ranging from the natural world and the possibilities and limitations of knowledge to tenderness and terror, blindness and revelation. Or, not necessarily “hold.” These elements surface like stones tumbled in a river, enhancing the paradoxes presented in and suspended by the Bower Lodge. (This lodge, though, is only a lodge and tomb from one perspective (58); it can also, with transformed vision, be viewed as a nest and womb (134–135).) Like those paradoxes, the elements assert coexistence. The Embalmer is “lovely and implacable,” yet the Wanderer says:
Now I have set my heart aside,
set my liver and my brain aside,
set my entrails and my stomach aside
in jars of salt, jars held by hands
I know too well to fear.
And I shall take them up again,
when I unwind myself
within the lodge. I shall put them
to the use of one who now has rested
and can live. (85–86)
In the Bower Lodge, and ultimately outside it, “down goes up.” The Bower Lodge reveals the secret kingdom, the hidden kingdom (47, 66), and it cannot be understood as an “either” or an “or.” This kingdom contains “both” and “and.” It is a mystery, one that can only be received as it is revealed. The Wanderer illuminates the nature of this kingdom in one of the final poems, “Assignment.” He says:
You will go now on your way
with all you need
in your empty hands.
The road will be
harder than you’d like,
and the water to ford
On the plateau
you’ll choose the pony
that speaks with her eyes
and ride until you have forgotten this letter,
forsaken every word
of your native language,
bled out every vein,
been replenished by new marrow,
and (like a cloud dark with rain)
remembered who you are. (133)
To be full, one must be empty. To travel on roads “harder than you’d like,” one must rest in the unwelcome, holy sleep of the Bower Lodge. To be reborn, one must come to know oneself—as the Wanderer does—“not as carver but as statue … / who gained features by subtraction / of what he thought he was” (119). To ascend one must descend.