PRECIPITATES by DEBRA KANG DEANBARBARA JANE REYES reviews
Precipitates by Debra Kang Dean
(BOA Editions, Rochester, N.Y., 2003)
Debra Kang Dean opens Precipitates with two epigraphs -- a haiku by Bashō and a couplet by Henry David Thoreau. For Dean, the seventeenth century Japanese poet and the nineteenth century American writer are not culturally dissimilar. Precipitates is a quiet collection, a meditation upon the natural world, in which one must take the time to think of stillness and movement, of t'ai chi that does not disturb the birds. Precipitates is a dialogue between the body and the world outside the body; the self is interior and exterior, and this relates to her use of form - writing renga or renku with herself in the form of these alternating haiku and koan-like couplets, under the title of "Patchwork of Selvage." Find "selvage," in the dictionary, and you will find that Dean plays with “selves” and “salvage”:
sel•vage also sel•vedge n. 1) a. The edge of a fabric that is woven so that it will not fray or ravel. b. An ornamental fringe at either end of an Oriental rug. 2) The edge plate of a lock that has a slot for a bolt. [Middle English (influenced by Middle Low German selfegge): self, self; see self + egge, edge; see edge.]
Dean is concerned with form and the alternating of form, particularly in the "Patchwork of Selvage" sections, though the entire book is concerned with cycles of life, with impermanence, and with the mutability of form: water - precipitation - snow - ocean - lake - hail. She begins Precipitates with a “Weather Report,” telling us it is the end of winter. New growth sprouts where winter snow thaws, and amid images of falling away, of endings, a creative force is insistent -- insects teeming in stagnant water and rotted wood, handwritten words that fill the once-blank lines of a notebook. There is a creative force even in the steeping of tea, in the soup that she makes with her own hands, and in her son, who is clay to these same hands. These "Patchwork of Selvage" sections frame the "Heart Sutras" sections, in which Dean’s form appropriately mutates into formlessness, though her rhythms and refrains persist, telling us something about form and that which is void of form. There is little difference between the two.
And so this is why Dean weaves Bashō with Thoreau, Zen with Transcendentalism. Her insights come from her meditations on the cycles and processes of the natural world, and the presence of the divine here. Can we, in our mimicry of nature, come to understand that we are of the natural world, can our mimicry cease being mimicry, so that the natural world is undisturbed by our presence. The only permanence about which she writes is the departure from the physical body: death. The dissipation of physical form: cremation. This could also be enlightenment, a release from the trappings of the mundane, an understanding or appreciation for that which is intangible, for "the work itself," and not the "hunger for perfection and control." Does one really find the "Buddha in the throat" after the flesh has been burned away?
Consider also that "sutra" is "thread," and that "patchwork," or quilting is the sewing together of many different scraps to make a larger piece both functional and beautiful. Precipitates, then, is a "selvage," weavings not meant to be merely ornamental, but also so that the ends do not fray.
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish, 2005), for which she received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets.