Review of Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia

Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia

From Yarrow to Anatolia
May 13th, 2015

Yarrow was a once thriving Mennonite community that was established in 1928 when 86 settlers arrived from Europe, including the parents of Leonard N. Neufeldt.

“Rootless lives may be as endemic to the Canadian and American West as root-bound ones,” he laments, “but in a world of change, there is little defence for either condition.”

Born and raised in the immigrant Dutch-Russian Mennonite hamlet of Yarrow, Neufeldt became a professor of American Studies at Purdue in 1978.

Edited by Neufeldt, Before We Were the Land’s (TouchWood $19.95) and Village of Unsettled Yearnings (TouchWood $21.95), both recall Yarrow’s origins.

His poetic recreation of life in Yarrow, Raspberrying (2003), has recalled how refugees from the Soviet Union came to the Fraser Valley to grow fruit and serve God. Yarrow was soon unable to offer most of its young people career opportunities.

“The 1950s witnessed a modest but gradual decline in the Mennonite population, the 1960s a precipitous one.” he concludes.

Leonard Neufeldt’s grandfather and father were both placed under arrest by Bolshevik agents for transport to the Gulag but they escaped to Canada via Spain, Cuba and Mexico. His maternal grandmother accounts for his Ashkenazic connection.

Neufeldt graduated summa cum laude from Waterloo Lutheran University (Wilfred Laurier) and received his MA and Ph.D in the USA. He and his wife have spent most of their professional years in America and abroad, notably in Europe and Turkey. Lecture tours have taken him to India (twice), Germany, Korea and China.

Neufeldt’s scholarly essays and books have appeared with Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Princeton University press, among others.

Now his seventh book of poetry, Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia (Signature $14.95) offers reflections on both Turkey and coastal B.C. as he considers, “wars, revolutions, the Holocaust, obsolete belief systems, Alzheimer’s and ever-present potentialities of the autistic as well as the illusory in the spoken or written word.” 


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Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia

Leonard Neufeldt writes with keen attentiveness and clear-eyed afection toward the places where he's lived and traveled.  In this, his seventh poetry collection, that sensibility combines with an equally keen consciousness of time–of human mortality, the movement of days and seasons, ad the interweaving of history with the present.  In his previous collections he has written extensively about his Mennonite roots and particularly about his hometown of Yarrow in southern British Columbia.  That background comes up in occasional allusive references here, but the main subject matter ventures farther from home.  
"Portraits in Different Voices," the opening section, depicts moments in the lives (in one case, the afterlife) of an eclectic assortment of people.  These are mostly artists or thinkers–Plato, Lenin, American journalist Margaret Fuller, Canadian poet Earle Birnet, among others–but we also meet an unnamed woman with Alzheimer's in a portrait that stands out for its compassionate appreciation of her peculiar understanding of the world.  Some of these poems are intimate close-ups, while others stand futher back and frame the portrait within a larger scene.  One of the close-ups, "The End of Plato," imagines a day near the end of the philosopher's life, weaving allusions to his ideas seamlessly with sensory details.  "Shabbat in Vienna" takes a wider view, placing sketches of Yiddish writer Dovid Bergelson amid memories of travel in Soviet-era Eastern Europe.  

Neufeldt tends to write in long beaths, one clause rolling into another, bringing in new threads of association.  Some of the single-page poems consist of only one or two sentences.  This doesn't always work; at times the connection between the beginning and end of a passage becomes tenuous, with pronouns losing sight of their antecedents.  When it does work, though, as in "Shabbat," this sweeping rhythm builds a slow but powerful momentum that holds to the main thread of the poem amid its digressions.  

The title section, the most substantial of the book's three, immerses the reader in the scenes of Turkey, where Neufeldt regularly spends time.  "Olive Harvest on the Terraces," one of the strongest pieces in this section, is one of two long poems that combine lyric elements with narrative.  It exemplifies Neufeldt's characteristic tone and pacing, taking its time bringing the settings into focus, moving slowly through its narrative, digressing here and there.  Neufeldt skillfully evokes color, movement, and sensation with unexpected and lively imagery.  In the orchard "An apparition of white butterflies  / veers as one from tree to tree" (34). A woman sorts through olives, "cupped hands / sweeping redness back and forth, fingers / alive like a pinist" (36). 
The theme of time comes out in particular ways in the Turkey Poems.  "Traditions and the New Near Mardin" observes the sometimes absurd juxtapositon of ancient and contemporary: "Roads are modern here until they stop, / defer without argument to cart / tracks" (62). The new appears less durable: 

Listen, friend, foot-wrenching 
paths and two hundred miles of plain
will forget a new hotel, artless imitations 
of modernity, two dead goats 
and me . . . (66) 

Another of the long poems, "Archaeology in Knidos, 1991," intersperses its narrative with reflections on aging and change, on what survives and what does not.  While the ruins of Knidos will likely be there for another visit in the future, the ramshackle boat dock may be gone.  There's a strong sense that the old stories are very much alive in the present moment: 

The storm died 
abruptly as it had come, like Jesus quieting
the Galilean waters, you said, but the captain 
pointed west to where Aeneas lost
his bearings and most of his men. (43

Other poems in this section are predominantly descriptive.  "Painting with Reds in Eastern Turkey" connects a siverse series of impressions by references to shades of red.  These vignettes–a sunset over a "rose-stone house," clothes on a line, a pair of sunburned foreigners–show Neufeldt's skill at evoking an atmosphere with color and texture.  

"Thikn of This Earth, My Love," the last and shortest section, returns to North America and particularly the West Coast with several meditations on times and seasons.  A sense of belonging to the natural world comes through in peoms like "Raccoons After Dark," where the speaker declares that "the earth can claim me / as a tree no longer visible / can claim a bird on a slip of branch" (82), or in "Winter Solstice," where you feel "the wind lightly cuffing your ears / like a mother reaching out beyond / her anger" (76). The final poem, "What the Fraser Valley Left Unsaid," situates itself on Neufeldt's home ground.  Here the sense of belonging mingles with an equally strong consciousness of mortality, of one day having to leave this place: "One day I will offer our children this poem / as love letter, ears ringing with pressure / from the other side of time" (85). 

Human experience and the natural world blend together in  vivid, sometimes synesthetic imagry: "The sky's clue full as lungs with the morning's / chill" (81); "the fresh-wrapped sound / of water near the black pier" (79). Occasionally there are line whose sound or imagery is interesting, but whose sense feels opaque.  These seem like the kind of moments when what is going on is perfectly clear in the writer's own mind, but does not quite get across to the reader.  

What does come across consistently in this collection is a reflective voice that acknowledges suffering and mortality while still seeing the world as a gift, a wonder that you can fall in love with over and over. 
 


— Joanne Epp The Mennonite Quarterly Review

Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia

Leonard Neufeldt’s seventh book of poetry is a vast collection that weaves together different voices of history. These poems ruminate on how history impacts both our everyday lives and our futures, and the collection as a whole meditates on memory and mortality, travel and home, on life beyond what we know, and on the day-to-day weight of the past. Set in a number of places around the world, Neufeldt takes the reader along on his travels as he ponders what it means to remember the past, what the past means to the present, and how to find stability within yourself in a changing and complicated world.

Structured in three unified parts, Neufeldt begins the first section, “Portraits in Different Voices,” by cleverly juxtaposing the past with the present by focusing on select historical figures. In this first section we find portraits of Plato, Nietzsche, Frida Kahlo, and Lenin (to name a few). In the poem “Baton with Tip Missing,” the Maestro Leonard Bernstein, known for his music for West Side Story and Candide, “is teaching the dead to perform. / Being gone from the past is not to be freed of it, ….” This idea that even in death Maestro Bernstein is still conducting orchestras in the afterlife plays with the idea that history is always with us. Our history will follow us around forever.

The titular section is set in present-day Turkey, where voices from the past collide with the sights, smells, and action of the present. Neufeldt’s Anatolia comes alive. You can feel the intense heat, smell the spices and perfumes, and hear the Tigris River lapping in a cave. Setting the biggest chunk of poems within such a rich and deeply historical landscape brings the importance of history (the history of a place, or of a human’s life) into sharp focus. The poem “Archaeology in Knidos, 1991” explores the idea that the only things we can take from the past are stories in its description of a trip through ancient ruins and the stories that emanate out of the rubble. As the journey continues, a travelling partner discovers an old coin and pockets it. This attempt at pocketing history, taking something tangible from the past, leads to interesting reflections on how we carry the past into the present. The captain of the trip, trying to safeguard the physical space, asks that “we turn our pockets out to prove / we’ve gotten nothing from this morning’s visit / except his story, ….”

How reliable are these stories? How do these stories influence the present? What does it mean to visit sacred, ancient places and tread on history with our present-day feet? This theme continues in the poem “Midday Meal at the Tigris River,” stating that “like the Tigris, broad and full as the infinite / it gathers from all the claims upon it, / words added without end.” History is a layered story. We travel the world and put our own personal history on places that have already seen so much. We add to history by simply being.

The final section, “Think of This Earth, My Love,” takes the reader to the poet’s home province, British Columbia. In contrast with the ever-present heat of Turkey, these poems begin with winter in British Columbia and then move into spring. Where Turkey was vibrant and fully alive, the poet turns his attention to the starkness of winter and the promise of new life with spring. In the poem “Spring Song, March” Neufeldt writes that “winter’s wreckage of leaves / ridged along the large patch / of rock daphne bursting out first / blossoms of immodest pink, / and everywhere between the trees / and rock ledge spears pushing / their secrets up like memory’s / pale surprise of green.” Just as blossoms emerge out of winter, new life and new stories emerge out of the past. Our memories of the past spring forward to create new memories in the present.

Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia is a beautiful collection of poetry that focuses deeply on the important role that the past plays in our present and our future. It shows the reader that travelling the world can teach you many things, but the simplest and most comforting truths lie in the spaces we each call home.

Krista Wiebe is a freelance editor and writer based in Calgary.


— Krista Wiebe Rhubarb

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