Review of “In the Dark, Soft Earth” by Frank Watson

(Disclaimer: I was given an advance reader copy PDF of this book for writing a review.)

Frank Watson’s  “In the Dark, Soft Earth” has a large scope. In general, Watson’s style is sparse and succinct. His descriptions aren’t grandiose but still encompass the entire world and time both ancient and modern. Some poems have a perspective that reaches across the centuries, like these lines from “time”: “these are the tombs / of a thousand years / grown green with the moss / of life’s decay” or from “each pulse”: “each pulse begets the night / each kiss engraves / a stone tablet that lives / for a thousand years”. Other poems cross vast distances, such as these lines from “maps”: “her breath / has blown me / across this half / of the waking world”.

Images thread their way through the poems – continents, campfires, sand, seas, jazz, and more. The collection is broken into ten books. Each book in the collection also has its own theme. Some poems are accompanied by artwork by such painters as Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Edward Hopper, and Henri Rousseau. Book 8, called “An Entrance to the Tarot Garden” consists of artwork from tarot decks, one poem for each card of the major arcana. I found this section particularly intriguing due to my own interest in the tarot. Here is an excerpt from “high priestess”: “she is ancient / as she is young — / and while we look / she stops to listen // she carries her robes / like she has worn them / for three thousand years”. Book 9, “Across the Continents” includes poems that are translations or inspired by other poets’ works. Book 10, “Stories Before I Sleep” steps away from the spare style of the other poems and expands to include sonnets and other works that have more breathing space than the majority of the poems in the rest of the book.

Every poem seems pared down to its essential parts. Even so, there are sometimes bumps in the road. Rhyme is used occasionally and there are moments when it seems accidental. When that happens, I find it more distracting than helpful. A few of the descriptions also stopped me for a moment, such as these lines from “in the dark, soft earth”: “so still, the universe / has barely cracked / and the grass stays silent”. I found myself contemplating the sound of grass, which probably wasn’t what the author intended.

There are wonderful nuggets to be found in Watson’s poems. My favorite lines are from “secrets”: “sunlight broken / into a thousand little sins”. A few other favorite lines are from “rhythms”: “oh, what she does / to me with her / cello strings” and from “tender flesh”: “she was a doe / with tender flesh / but the only / ones she loved / were hungry wolves”.

This volume of poetry reminds me of a tree in winter. There is a primal beauty in its bareness, none of the essential parts are hidden. If s stripped-down style appeals to you, I think you will really enjoy “In the Dark, Soft Earth.”

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