Issue 1:2 | Points of View | Rob Merritt
Book: Taping Images to Walls
Author: Dan Stryk
Publisher: Pecan Grove Press, 2002
Reviewer: Rob Merritt (Bluefield College)
Wang Wei in Bristol
In his fifth collection of poetry, Taping Images to Walls: A medley of informal sonnets, Dan Stryk challenges himself to put each poem into a pre-established form and then masterfully makes that form an appropriate and surprisingly elastic vehicle for the undulations of thought driving each poem.
Each poem is a quick snapshot, a still life, brief on the page, focusing the reader's attention upon some local scene.  Stryk, Professor of English at Virginia Intermont College, calls the poems, "informal sonnets," by which he means most are about 14 lines long.  He doesn't use rhyme; several poems keep up a fairly consistent iambic pentameter.  Each poem establishes its own rhythm (tetrameter, hexameter, near prose) and sticks pretty much with it.  The poems are not as rigid as a traditional English or Italian sonnet; neither are they free verse.  He has staked himself out some middle ground on the formal landscape.
These poems seem to me to participate as much in the formal tradition of Wang Wei, Li Po or Tu Fu as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and John Berryman.  A far eastern sensibility settles into an Adirondack chair in southwest Virginia, as evidenced by the title of a poem like" On Discovering a Perfect Robin's Egg on the Road's Edge, by My Mailbox, on a Quiet Morning Between Days of Storm," or the concrete rendering of local landscape to convey feeling, as in "The Day We'd Cleared the Beer Bottles from a Frogpond Hidden on an Unknown Neighbor's Land": "this living waterhole of gleaming / Cress. and algae feathered vibrantly from / Rocks. . . .  The polliwogs hung still in slanted equipoise."
This form allows Stryk to set a scene, distill the details, hint at the wider significance, and get out.  Many writers would benefit from such discipline.  Yet the "informality" of the form permits a variety of mood, subject and level of diction.  The more colloquial poems work in the flexible form.  These lines about Glenda George from "Makes Ya Wonder" would not succeed in rhyme or consistent in iambic pentameter:
 Yet Sundays prays, again, for what
He's given.  Shop shades drawn. For what she knows she'll never
Understand.  This Appalachian hairstylist who works and wonders
Daily, with her clients, at the Glade Springs Unisex Place,
The poems are accessible, funny, contemplative, spiritual; Stryk has balanced his roles of prosodist and ordinary man.  He dares to ask the question every poet ought: "What urges us continually to bare our souls this way?"  Like the images taped to the wall of the title poem, memories (everyone's-- the poets are just those who bother to write them down), "cling firm over the years, despite a worn fragility. . . gaining untold character/ Trough stoic perseverance and decay."  In this poem Stryk does what I enjoy most in this collection: sets himself in a domestic scene (in his study, looking at his wall), using close observation of the ordinary to propel, through metaphor, those local truths toward bigger ones.  "A leathery magnolia leaf":
. . . which I love to watch grow subtly
Darker every year, taped beneath my window by its stem.  Like
The rich sleepiness of age on evenings we don't fight it,
Feeling guilt for things undone.
Such epiphanies keep us going when we're down: a green fly in his chest hair as he drinks tea in his garden early in spring.  Or "How can we move this sodden mood?"  So much of the fascinating mystery around us fails to move us, makes us "blunt," but "spring's first fireflies," with
Faith in their keen flickering, both brilliant and brief--    
We breathe in our slow breaths.  Blunt but alive. ("Blunt").
There is humor-- even in the titles: "When My Student-Athlete, Brandon (From a Rural Virginia Town), Justified his Love for Professional Wrestling (After My Snide Comment) Before the Class..." and "Eureka! (Or How the Banana Floated in Bathwater, Flung in by My Laughing Wife"-- yet the poems are still able to end with that insight amidst the absurdity and quotidian: the banana:
like residue of all
Vast culture's quirky roots in secrets of the morning bath; a movie-
Reel of human thought would back along the grand parade of minute
Twists of fate--tiny shocks that changed the world, unsung."
As I said earlier, the East lurks about in these poems— long titles for short poems, sonnets like expanded haiku, Hokusai's Red Fuji, one of the images taped to his wall— and the volume significantly ends with a homage to 8th-century Chinese poet, Wang Wei.  Stryk, aging amid luminous poplar and pines continues on:
Despite fatigue, I seek to pierce the gloom to find
My way.  To find my way along the water's
Wordless flow.  How in life to fail or glow?
So, in these times fraught with anxiety, incessant goal-setting, regret over missed opportunities, Stryk encourages readers to observe closely surroundings, to know the perceiver shapes and selects the welter of particulars to make the epiphany, and to realize, along with Wang Wei:
In late years, I love only stillness,
The world's affairs no longer trouble my heart.
Looking at myself: no far-reaching plans:
All I know: to return to familiar woods--
The pine winds blow and loosen my sash;
The mountain moon shines upon me playing the lute.
("To SubPrefect Chang").
Stryk's is a fine volume of poetry, with practical advice for living.
Rob Merritt