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The Cartographer’s Skin
By Lara Bozabalian
48 poems, 74 pages
Piquant Press
Reviewed by Ed Bennett

A couple of weeks ago I found myself reading a critique of Timothy Donnelly’s poetry in the New Yorker. The reviewer, Dan Chiassen, made a broad stroke generalization that all poets fall into two groups “lingerers” and “barrelers”. Seamus Heaney, with his detailed examinations of all things rustic is a lingerer and Walt Whitman’s broad yawping songs of the human condition have made him America’s most celebrated barreler. Both poets use the same tools to create their poetry but what is common to both is that the primary medium to deliver their work to their audience is the written word. As I read through the article I couldn’t help thinking about how sedentary poetry has become and how the stereotype of the lonely poet writing in the pre-dawn hours has become the prevalent image to many people. I wondered where the newer, younger poets with their open mikes and slams would be categorized.
Having spent my allotted leisure pondering the state of the arts, I went back to work, picking up Lara Bozabalian’s” The Cartographer’s Skin”. After the first few poems I realized the limitation in Mr. Chiasson’s theory. Ms. Bozabalian is neither a lingerer nor a barreler though there are elements of both in her poetry. She represents a far more venerable tradition in poetry: poems as spoken performance. Her work stands squarely with the tradition of Homer and the legend poets of three millennia ago. The poems are contemporary and lacking the fussiness of language so many readers come to expect. The sonics and rhythm of the poetry begs them to be spoken with the fresh clap of her perfectly structured images. Not surprisingly, Ms. Bozabalian is frequently a featured performance poet in and around her native Ontario and her work shows it.
Categories aside, what sets Ms Bozabalian apart is her distinctive voice. Frequently speaking in the first person, a reader gets the feeling that somehow she is looking straight at them. She may read her poetry to an auditorium full of people but the narrator’s voice is personal, a one – on – one between poet and participant.
In her lead poem “Morning Skin” she opens with
          “The first night I did not expect
           the tumble down of clothes and limbs and mouth”
She begins in medias res, like a Chayefsky play, the action unfolding with each line. The plot is a visceral part of each line and the characters, including the narrator, begin as transparencies that take shape as one moves through the poem. Ms. Bozabalian does not simply write a poem, she conjures it from a cauldron of clear language and emotional verisimilitude.
She is at her best when she constructs a poem around a series of interlocking images as in “Butterfly Remember”. She ranges from a “soon to be ex-lover” to a Bavarian vacation, an anorexic classmate to an unraveling sweater. The sweater and the lives coming apart are brought full circle at its conclusion:
          “…Because you realize this is not just about
           understanding how and why this sweater became unraveled.
           It is about finding a rhythm in the way the yarn hits the floor.”
The signature poem “The Cartographer’s Skin” is a love poem with the narrator describing her lover in an almost subdued voice yet the power of the narrator’s passion is woven into each strophe:
          “…I remember
           you are always moving, like roots, like lichen, like bark –
           you are a cartographer: always seeing,
           bending and shaping and drawing lines warmly and in.”
Each of the 48 poems in this collection have this moment, a flash of exposition where everything becomes clear, each emotion sustained and underlined with her unique ability,
There is so much more that can be said about “The Cartographer’s Skin” but writing about it lacks the crisp, vibrant expression in the poems themselves. I do not think it enough to simply recommend reading the book because these poems live when spoken. The book is an introduction to both the contemporary and ancient traditions of Poetry with a capital “P”. Read the poems then go to “You Tube” to see and hear Ms. Bozabalian read her work, several of which appear here. Our twenty first century ears will never hear the rolling rhythm of Homer’s wine dark sea as it was declaimed to the ancient Greeks. We do, however, have this tradition alive and quite well in the poetry readings and slams in our communities. Lara Bozabalian is a gifted writer and performer. Her uniqueness emerges from the printed page and bursts into full flower on stage. When I finished reading the book, the concluding line of her poem “The Cartographer’s Skin” remained with me, as I’m sure it will with every reader:
          “Everything is new here.”

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