REVIEWS  of
The Various Reasons of Light
Softcover $12.95  ISBN 0-9661072-1-7
 

The Literary Review    |     Antioch Review    |    American Literary Review


from The Literary Review
Reviewed by William Zander

            This is a wonderful book of poems, deeply serious yet imbued with the sense of humor that a sharp eye and empathetic heart bring to the most serious subjects.  Thus, in one of the poems from “Sonnets for the Resurrection,” Ashley pictures the dead, about to be judged, as stubborn:

                        This time it’s Saturday and the dead refuse
                          To rise – they’ve worked hard being dead,
                        Need their rest, want to keep their groggy heads
                          On their dark, dirt pillows.  Nobody who’s 

                        Anybody can tell them different:  not dark
                          Angels, not light ones, not dew worms or dogs
                        Digging holes.  They won’t partake in dialogues,
                          Not judgments, not standing in lines….

              Ashley’s poems are original, even quirky at times, yet built on the simplest of natural materials: light, darkness, water, and stone.  Ashley is gifted in picking out air tunes, stuff that’s already there, all around us, which is much harder than being wildly original (or “far out,” as they say in the old country).

            Overall, this is a deeply religious book; indeed, the work here brings to mind the Jacobean devotional poets, especially when one comes to that wonderful sonnet sequence.  The only twentieth century poet Ashley resembles is Roethke (from me, that’s high praise); like him, she uses simple natural objects to find her way to the sacred.  Sometimes, her poems (most of which are in open form) remind me of the meditative poems from The Far Field:

                                            Think of something solid and cool – a flat stone leap-
                         frogging the steely water at dusk; think of the stone as god-shaped, irreducible.  Expect
                         nothing from anyone; prepare for a fathomless dark; in one
                         short sweep, you’ll be alone.  Ask: what do you fear? 

            This book is more than disparate poems compiled from publication in sundry magazines.  The unifying theme is light, and the archetype is informed not only by the visions of mystics but by the discoveries of modern physics:

                                                                                  Render her
                        your absolute angel; nothing about her is constant

          but her speed.  You must see it: velocity is her catechism.
                       Listen: she’s your photon, your quantum of deliberate light. 

            The sense that quantum and relativity theory is as wondrous as the Revelation of St. John informs these poems and brings the ancient longing into the twentieth century.

            I can (and will) quibble.  Ashley’s whimsical juxtapositions seem appropriate in a world where light can take the form of both waves and particles at the same time; sometimes, though, the whimsy provides me no shock of recognition:  “…the gray birds meandering/wild, through your hair” (this in a solemn tone).  And I hope the word “laid” on p. 63 will appear as “lay” in the collected poems.  (The curse of being an English teacher and ex-copy editor will be forgiven me, I trust, at the resurrection.)

            Having done my duty to logic and linear thinking, however, I want to praise this book with an unequivocal gloria.  Like the generous soul in the last poem in the book, it fishes “out of the air the nameless thing it seeks.”


from The Antioch Review 
Reviewed by Gray Jacobik

When Ashley writes, she is governed by vision and a fierce passion that works into the forward thrusting pulsations of her cadences.  The Various Reasons of Light is her second collection this decade; the first, Salt, received the Brittingham Prize in 1991.  She is a religious poet whose vision is idiosyncratic: titles alone reveal her preoccupations, among them “The Velocity of Angels,” “What Makes the Dead Rejoice,” “Sonnets for the Resurrection,” and “The Generosity of Souls.”  A few lines from “Entertaining the Angel” reveal how in Ashley’s skillful hands, imagination conjoined to vision becomes magnetic “when she spoke, I thought it was rain, I thought / the one white birch moved nearer, I thought it was the sound / of the lank ivy growing full before my eyes.”

            A poet of high ambition, Ashley eschews the quotidian for the ephemeral and risks alienating emphatic realists, such as myself.  Risks, but succeeds nonetheless through her spell-binding weaving of the dark and light aspects of subjective experience, and in tones both soft-spoken and full of conviction.  Also in this collection, and among my favorites, are subtle landscape and love poems abounding in surprises.  Ashley’s is a pure poetry; no matter one’s metaphysics or lack thereof, one admires an expert poet who presents her vision so unconditionally.


from American Literary Review
Reviewed by Sheryl Luna

Renée Ashley, a mysterious and mystical poet, lives in a world where linear thought and reason merge with the beauty of the imagination.  The speaker addresses God openly and directly in many of these poems.  She questions him with an insistent and subtle hunger.  The angel in the opening poem, “The Velocity of Angels,” moves so fast that Ashley describes the angel’s journey in the following way for the reader:

                                                                                    Render her
                        your absolute angel; nothing about her is constant 

                        but her speed.  You must see it: velocity is her catechism.
                        Listen: she’s your photon, your quantum of deliberate light.

 

Her reference to quantum physics celebrates the angel which Wallace Stevens deemed necessary for a poet: the imagination.  Renée Ashley’s poems question linear and hierarchical thinking as limited.  The language is simultaneously sorrowful and celebratory, communal yet full of solitude and longing, tangible yet ethereal.

            In Renée Ashley’s world, light takes over or illuminates the body.  The body is often associated with god, flight, the moon, and most predominately with the speed of light.  The corporeal is often merged with the light.  In her poem “The Various Reasons of Light” she does this most elegantly: 

                        The paradigm is clear: you are the sun.
                               That’s it: be the sun.  Lift your pale leg

                        and light sprouts from the rising, from
                               the elegant trajectory, lambent and simple,

                        a crotch of light, day in the simple guise
                               of will.

The speaker here and elsewhere blurs the separation between the corporeal and the ethereal.  Dreams are as tangible as leaves.

            The speaker questions living completely in one world or the other, the imaginative world or the world of the body, the world of movement and space (chaotic photons) or the world of corporeal mass.  In Ashley’s poems the spiritual world often merges with the natural world.  God’s angel is his/her “umbilical angel.”  In the opening poem the speaker describes the physical body of an angelic or supernatural entity:

                        You can’t complain, you know about
                        the heart, hers a fiery and weightless thing; your
                        body was a hindrance to you both, and when you 

                        genuflected at the crucifix of her luminous
                        breastbone, did she undo you?  Was the speed 

                        of her understanding more than your body
                        could bear?

Another side of Renée Ashley’s poetry is a sense of the common experiences of loss or longing in human relationships.  This need is expressed in poems such as “For Brigit in Illinois” and “How I Would Steal the Child.”  The first poem is a letter asking a friend to return.  There is a sense of loss, a sense of solitude and need which runs throughout the poem.  The speaker misses her lost friend and their past lives together:

                        We rose
                        like spirits ourselves, two souls glad of understanding – 

                        the leaves
                        about us, above us like dreams.

 

            “How I Would Steal the Child” is about the need for the speaker to love a child.  the poem is a confession of longing.  The speaker wants to “own” the child.  She describes the child as completely belonging to her rather than to himself:

                        he will know nothing.  Blank-eyed
                        and needy, he will make himself known.
                        I can save him; he must love me. 

This concept of being a savior or a caretaker also appears in a poem entitled “Obsolete Angel.”  There the speaker hopes to save an angel from falling.  The sense of sadness and longing, rooted in the speaker’s need to connect with others, appears in some poems, yet it is as if a light, angelic and mystical, shines from each of Ashley’s poems with a resiliency and praise for life despite the sadness.

            Angels appear in the poems as beacons of hope, imaginative bodies moving through the mystery of the universe.  In the poem, “One Wing,” the angel is wounded, yet s/he is pulling a man through a needle to heaven.  “Obsolete Angel” is about a particular angel who can’t fly.  A fat old angel who spends too much time brooding over omens and sings only in one hoarse note; he finds himself falling rather than rising.  Some of Ashley’s angels are praiseworthy and majestic, and others are struggling oafs.  Yet each angel is glorious and worthy of our praise and at times our help.

            In the midst of the light of darting angels and the fall of the “Obsolete Angel,” the speaker focuses on the dead, those who have lost their bodies, and now exist in a world of light and spirit.  The speaker in the poems about resurrection and death longs to observe herself as one small part of the very immense existence.  In “Sonnets for the Resurrection” Ashley presents the dead in the same light as she presents angels.  The dead are also speeding, darting boundless creatures: 

                        All souls, the anxious and the terrified, sped to boundless
                        Light or final castigation – the children and the myrmidons,
                        The unclean, the burdened.  They are called, are coming.  Listen.

According to the speaking in “What Makes the Dead Rejoice,” the dead desire corporeal existence:

                        And the dead like honeysuckle.
                        And the smell of strong tea in glasses that sweat like the rocks
                        will sweat when the spring thaws the laurel mountain. 

According to quantum physics, all bodies or things are made up of moving atoms or moving spheres of empty space.  Ashley seems to be praising this fact.

            The Various Reasons of Light is a book of paradox, and the poems beautifully enact the mysterious movements of Wallace Stevens’ imaginative and “necessary” angel.  Following Stevens’ believe that a poem must bridge the imagination and the real, Ashley’s poems celebrate human relationships and mourn the loss of friends.  In her poems about the dead, Ashley appears to again blur the traditional boundaries between the real and imaginary, the body and the soul.  Our mechanized view of the world and of existence has be found limited.  Our view of the spiritual world as non-corporeal has been questioned.


Read Obsolete Angel from The Various Reasons of Light
Read about Renée Ashley  |    Authors

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