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   h i s t o r y    d o e s n 't    a l w a y s    r e p e a t    i t s e l f:    r e v i e w    o f    w i l l i a m    f.    v a n    w e r t 's    t h e    i n v e n t i o n    o f    i c e    s k a t i n g (a v i s s o n    p r e s s,    1 9 9 7)

--- A A R E N   Y E A T T S   P E R R Y


At least not in Bill Van Wert's volume of poetry, The Invention of Ice Skating. No, this is not a book about figure skating and the winter olympics. It is a book about nothing less than the history of the world. Better, this collection becomes a world of selected histories brought to life by Van Wert. "From generation myth, through cave-man artist, down to those governments and personages we've come to count on," says noted author Toby Olson in his blurb on the back cover, "the poet questions and torques just about everything, and in so doing reinvents history."

Neither subject matter nor style nor form repeat themselves in the 35 poems that fill this perfect bound collection. The poems spiral outward from the first primordial moment in the title poem when, after the ice age,

...the living things
did not all die. They walked on their mirrors,
cut through their image
with runners and traces
of mind: elliptical photos
that etched the ice,
outlining Spring
from memory.

The title is perfect for a collection of poems that lets us look at our achievements and imperfections in the mirror of history, a mirror that thaws and refreezes, showing us how we glide forward into infinity in a figure eight, ever looking back over our shoulders.

In a recent interview, Van Wert explained that the poems themselves are historical in that they were originally written in 1976 while he was awaiting the birth of his son, and consequently thinking a lot about the future. Recently Van Wert was on leave from his job as Professor of Creative Writing and Film at Temple University and found this manuscript while cleaning his house. According to Van Wert, the last poem in the collection, "The Grand Tour," was written first and the rest followed. The impetus for the writing was his fascination with the space shuttle Voyager

The poems have clearly stood the test of history. Van Wert recently sent the manuscript out and it won the Avisson Poetry Prize. The collection is vastly different from any of his other twelve books of fiction, short stories, poetry or creative nonfiction.

The poems are more abrupt at the beginning and end of the book. But in the middle the poems are written in a more narrative style, creating portraits of some historical personages and epochs. Throughout, irony is pushed to the fore. There is irony in the writing, the ironic and unbelievable events chosen by the author as topics, and irony is even talked about in several poems that become conscious of themselves, like "The Candor of Concentric Circles":

Another kind of unending Antarctica.
The candor of concentric circles.
The irony.
The dizzy irony.

Poems like this one or "The Gravity of Flightless Birds," about the cave paintings at La Gravette in France, are so stunningly visual that they are almost film-like. But many of these poems do what even the best cinematography cannot do. They have the collective effect of placing you in several time zones or eras at once. You feel not just the simultaneity of the past, present and future, but a visceral overlapping of, say, a ride on the space craft Voyager and a human barbecue in a prehistoric cave.

Van Wert is as confident in his readers as he is in his writing. He is not targeting a certain audience. Here he speaks to the stranger, the other, the future poetry reader. These poems are clear enough to be understood by the stranger, mysterious and complex enough for the other, and well-crafted enough to endure the future. He knows that those for whom the names and places of history are confusing will know where to look for the answers. And those who know history will feel at one with his reinventing of it.

The poems successfully animate the dead facts of history. "The Ziggurats of Sumer," for example, revisits the Sumerians who established a civilization in the ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, inventing many of the machines and systems still used today. But the poem illuminates the oft ignored fact that these inventors were of African origin. Then the piece takes this realization to another level where, by the end, the poem has answered its own question: "what is civilization?" After explaining the fall of Sumer and showing how the tables turn and "the last shall be the first," the poem concludes,

...first to make money, first

to know bronze; first to make slaves
and keep them in bonds.
Civilization is what society does,
enhancing the past, taking

its risks in full irony.
Like a figure eight, the slaves
you make will one day master
the silver ingots, of varying weight.

These poems are, at least, meditations on the juicy complexities of human and geological history. Whether a narrative recounting of the civil war ("Being Civil") or a renga-like koan in "The Death of Confucius," each line and then each stanza can be read over again and considered on its own. At best they are meditations that reach revery in moments of timeless synthesis where the overlapping realities of historical fact, rhythm, (mostly free verse but occasional iambic), lyric, personal anecdote, and silence, merge to become art, as in "The Gravity of Flightless Birds":

He didn't care. He drew a bear
on the wall of the cave, a bear
facing forward, the face of La Tuque
housed in that fur: the first
self-portrait drawn by man,
any man. And no bear came
to bother him.

This recursive, almost biblical-sounding return to words used in a previous line or phrase again in a following line is a technique used more than once in this collection. It is used to deepen the lyricality of these clearly written, somewhat narrative based mostly on the sentence. Such hidden style and the subtle auditory strategy of well-placed line and stanza breaks create lean, hearable poems.

By the end of a poem about the failure of communism ("The Dialectic") the reader is considering the evils of capitalist consumerism. By the end of a poem about the civil war ("Being Civil") the reader is considering its parallels with the North-South conflicts in Korea and Viet Nam. But it is Van Wert's ability to make these leaps with the human psyche and with history's impact on human development that puts meat on the bones of these poems. In "In the Beginning" Van Wert reminds us that,

What separates us
from every man who came before,
everyman illiterate,

no matter how intelligent,
is the printed word.
The word has made somehow

more than flesh....

...If what was kept
was his cliche, imagine Ovid
with his myths, assured,

for all the generations,
that none would ever change.
Imagine the power,

the texture, the range
of such voices, and all
past masters at their choices.

There is a tension and compression in many of these poems that Van Wert attributes partly to having been an expectant father during their writing. Tales for Expectant Fathers was to be the title at one point. But there is also the graceful confidence of someone who has the long view of history. It was as if the poems were written by a watch maker, someone who knows how time works. He also listened to Bob Dylan's longer songs while writing these poems (remember they were originally written in the mid '70s) in order to "build up a trance." Van Wert clearly considered the element of meditative thought important in the writing and the reading of these poems.

I feel the centripetal force of history flinging me forward when I read the poems in Van Wert's The Invention of Ice Skating. Each poem grabs me like the gravity of the planets that held the Voyager as it orbited, sending back pictures and sounds, then flings me further into space. Even after the last poem I was expecting, the next one, as if there were more planets and poems out there. And like Voyager, these poems will still be sending sounds back to the reader years later.

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