Beyond Birds and Answers
by Alice Pero and Vera Campion
30 poems, 76 pages
Price: $34.99 (hardcover), $24.99 (softcover).
Publisher: Elyssar Press, 2021
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
The first thing to notice about this book is that it is a collaboration between two people. It is subtitled ‘a dialogue’ and that is precisely what it is. The book is dedicated to the memory of Bob Hart (1931-2014), a New York poet whose work on dialoguing has been an inspiration to Pero and Campion down the years.
Alice Pero has been creating dialogue poems with more than 20 poets over the years. She started dialoguing with other poets as a dancer in the 1980s and these continuing exchanges have resulted in thousands of pages of poetry. Her work with New York City artist Vera Campion is her first conversation with works of art. Pero is a teacher of poetry and a member of the California Poets in Schools, where she has developed a unique style of teaching children poetry based on rhythm and other art forms. She is also a classically trained flutist and formed the Windsong Players Ensemble in 2015 which performs regularly in the Los Angeles area.
Of Czech parentage, Vera Campion moved to New York in 1970. She studied watercolour with Theo Hios and later studied at the Arts Student League with leading New York artist Knox Martin. In the early nineties, she studied Intaglio printing with Veejay Kumar at the Manhattan Graphic Center, New York City.
Campion views her art as ‘Reality in Metaphor’ and is particularly interested in collage as an art form. She likes to see a picture grow organically from cut-up shapes so that the final image comes as a surprise. Her work has been shown in Prague, the USA and Canada. The intense use of colour in her work has prompted comparisons with Henri Matisse, a comparison that she is very happy with. The artwork in this collaboration is full of movement and colour. Her collages of people, animals, birds, flowers and stars evoke a sense of childlike wonder about the amazing world in which we live. Taken as a whole they convey a rich visual vocabulary that is matched with equal force by Pero’s poetic vision.
The book is divided into three distinct chapters. Each chapter contains 10 poems. The layout of the book differs from the conventional format insofar as there is no contents page, none of the poems have titles and the works of art, which have titles assigned to them outside of the book, are not titled either. The poems and paintings are placed opposite each other so that the reader does not have to turn the page. In the first chapter, the reader is invited to look at the artwork first and then to read the poem. All the poems in this chapter are justified to the left. In the second and third chapters the reader is invited to read the poem first and then to look at the artwork. All the poems in this chapter are justified to the right. This prompts the question: which came first, the poem or the artwork? Intriguingly, we are never told.
The three chapters are quite distinct. In the first chapter the reader is introduced to the simple image of birds, especially the crow. The second chapter focusses on some of the darker aspects of life including the concept of evil. The last chapter moves towards a spiritual perspective. Here, the image of the star is very much in evidence. Despite the differences, there are common threads that weave their way through the book, giving it a sense of unity and purpose. Magic, movement and colour combined with a childlike innocence and sense of awe, keep the poems anchored while at the same time allowing the reader to use his or her own imagination as well. It is as if Pero is holding her poems as one would hold a kite giving the reader enough free reign to watch the kite fly freely in the wind.
In a review like this, offering the reader an extract is tantamount to offering only one half of the story because the poem should really be seen in conjunction with the artwork. I should therefore explain that this poem is one that is positioned alongside an artwork showing five pink and red flowering tulips standing at different heights against a dark sloping background and clear blue sky.
So tall and straight
meeting the sunlight
in colors we take in
like whiskey, straight
There is no escape
You announce your beauty
with no apology, no safe distancing
We must breathe your air
We are not afraid
Originally a dancer and a musician before she became a writer, Pero’s poems have a musicality and a rhythm all of their own. This may be one of the reasons why the punctuation is sparse. Only commas and question marks are used. There are no full stops. For Pero, rhythm and the positioning of the line break provide all that is necessary to convey meaning. Some poems begin with a question or a series of questions while others end with a question. All the questions are rhetorical. We do not expect them to be answered.
Like Campion’s artwork, Pero’s poems are full of birds, flowers and colours. Crows are mentioned five times, the word ‘flower’ is mentioned 18 times and the word ‘colour’ and /or the mention of a specific colour appears frequently throughout all three chapters of the book. Campion’s predominant colour is blue and that is the colour that is mentioned the most by Pero.
The idea of collage that is portrayed in Campion’s artwork is captured in Pero’s poems in a number of different ways: ‘daisies’ are ‘divided in so many parts,’ somebody falls ‘into a dozen pieces,’ ‘flower heads fall / as though beheaded,’ ‘stars’ fly from someone’s eyes and doves explode, ‘leaping into the sky’. Pero’s phrase ‘an explosion of doves’ is particularly arresting since doves are traditionally viewed as symbols of peace. Like collage, Pero holds these fragments together with her carefully chosen words.
The following stanza is taken from the final chapter. The first two lines reminded me of Holman Hunt’s allegorical painting, ‘The Light of the World’. In direct contrast to that painting, the final two lines startle us with their image. They evoke a real sense of frustration that some people just cannot ‘see’ that there is so much beauty in the world and more to life than meets the eye.
I will knock at his door
and throw a brick
into his consciousness
This collaboration is a testament to the power of the imagination. It shows us how art and poetry have the capacity to inspire us. One of the many beautiful things about this book is that it will appeal to all ages. Fully recommended.