Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
Stephen Cramer: A Review of Tomorrow, Today, and Yesterday by J.R. Solonche (ISBN 978-0-9991062-9-7, Deerbrook Editions, 2019)
In Norse mythology, Odin approaches the king of the trolls and asks him to reveal the secret to life. The troll says he'll reveal the secret only if Odin plucks out his left eye and presents it to him. When Odin complies, the troll says, with a twisted grin, "the secret to life is to watch with both eyes." In Tomorrow, Today, and Yesterday J.R.Solonche not only proves that he has the gift of seeing with both eyes the world's often-overlooked minutia, but also the gift of translating those mysteries into language that, as Robert Lowell said of the later poems of Stanley Kunitz, even "cats and dogs can understand."
Many times, poets with as many books under their belt as Solonche (I believe we've just entered the double digits) tend to assume a sage-like persona, presenting themselves as the wise old bard who has the answer to your every question about the universe—including that murkiest thought in the hindquarters of your brain—tucked conveniently up their sleeves. You can practically feel their feet lifting off of the ground as they imagine themselves hovering just a few inches above the rest of man and womankind. The glory of J.R. Solonche is that, over the course of his career (read: over the course of his life) he has been consistently able to keep his feet firmly on the ground.
He achieves this through humor. He achieves this through quirkiness. He achieves this through self-deprecation. And sometimes he achieves this through a combination of the three. Case in point: "Ode to the East Wind," which consists of the opening and the final lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," though in Solonche's interpretation, the words have been blown backwards (or possibly inside out) by the wind. Solonche sees the world backwards, or inside out, or upside down. In any case, he sees it in a way that most people don't.
Like Shelley and the Romantics, Solonche repeatedly turns to the natural world for inspiration. "If Trees Could Weep" reads in its entirety:
If pine and oak, ash
and larch, sassafras
and sycamore, if all
of them could weep,
they should weep
like the weeping cherry
tree whose snow white
tears are more beautiful
Here, as is often the case in Solonche's work, the language falls back on itself like a wave, repeating and then pushing forward into new ground with greater force. Solonche knows that a true investigation into a subject cannot be resolved except through the reconciliation of opposites. His is a world in which weeping and laughter fuse until one can hardly tell which is which. "Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa," writes William Matthews. "And in any case the coin is too soon spent, and on we know not what."
Whether they inquire into the true nature of a cherry tree, reimagine the lives of figures from Greek mythology, or question the nature of poetry itself, the poems in Tomorrow, Today, and Yesterday are the work of a poet who is, in the words of one of his poems, "awake with both eyes."
I know of no greater compliment for a writer than to say that they change the way you look at the world. After you read a handful of J.R. Solonche's poems, you walk around seeing the landscape as J.R. Solonche might see it. A famous painting becomes a famous painting as seen through the lens of J.R. Solonche. A peony becomes a peony as seen through the lens of J. R. Solonche. As a cherry tree has the ability to change the way the poet sees in his poem, "Now That," the poet has the ability to change the very way in which we experience the world:
the cherry tree
of the house
every other tree,
I will look
at every other
tree with my
cherry tree eyes.
To see the world from a different and unique perspective, you can take a plane ride. You can climb a mountain. Or you can read this book.
Stephen Cramer's first book of poems, Shiva's Drum, was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by University of Illinois Press. From the Hip, his third book, follows the history of hip-hop in a series of 56 sonnets. Bone Music, his sixth and most recent collection, won the Louise Bogan Award and was published by Trio House Press. His work has appeared in journals such as The American Poetry Review, African American Review, The Yale Review, and Harvard Review. An Assistant Poetry Editor at Green Mountains Review, he teaches writing and literature at the University of Vermont and lives with his wife and daughter in Burlington.
J.R. Solonche's work has appeared frequently in Offcourse.