David Romtvedt

A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know

Publisher: Copper Canyon Press

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Selected for the National Poetry series by John Haines, this volume includes family history and poems about childhood as well as work informed by Romtvedt's ( Moon ) adult experiences: his opposition to the draft during the Vietnam War, his work in the Peace Corps in Africa and his protest against the Trident nuclear submarine base on Puget Sound. Happily, the poems are free of polemics. Rather, they demonstrate Romtvedt's sympathy for the spectrum of humanity, from the nameless victims of Guatemalan terrorism to Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in Stalin's Gulag. One of the most compelling poems describes how the poet's grandmother and her sisters were forced as children to stand in a row in their living room while their father aimed a rifle at them. The poem ends with the haunting refrain, "It was winter and we skated, the ice so clear it was blue." Technically, the volume is eclectic. The opening poem is written in a deadpan and prosaic voice, but the title poem, with its dreamy image of a flower floating in darkness, is surreal. Although the language is well chosen and seems musically correct throughout, the numerous shifts of voice and sensibility are troubling. Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.


A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know
Luminous three-foot leaves
float across an ocean of darkness,
a shimmering face with numberless eyes
that open and close.

The yellow sun, the black sky,
I can feel the tension
as each tries to erase the other.

The city clicks and hums
but the cloud overhead passes
as if over a fallow field.

The air is the same air
I breathed in Paradise
and Buchenwald.

A beautiful perfumed woman
enters the room. I want to stare
at her legs but her scent
is so strong it burns my nose.

I stand up to walk away.
As I open the door,
I am slapped in the face
by another world,
and it is this one.

I lie on the white snow with the white clouds
above my face. The wind blows through
the hairs in my nose. It pushes
the clouds in a parade of blurry shapes:

a frozen horse, a drunken saguaro,
a chewed-up bone, the face of a drowned man,
a charging lion. The clouds
disappear and there's only blue sky,

the same blue as the blue car
my father waxed once a month
even on the hottest Arizona days,
turning a soft rag in his hardened hands.

As he worked a drop of water would fall.
"Rain?" he'd hope. Then he'd lean over
the shining surface, see the sweat fall
from his face to the paint, and smile.


From "Library Journal"
"When I was a boy the neighbor/ across the street built a bomb shelter." Romtvedt's work is at once personal and political, an awkward mix for most poets, but he manages to come down on issues and still keep himself and his experiences at the center of the poem. Besides the bomb, he addresses such contemporary topics as a "peace blockade," a nuclear accident in the Ukraine, and a Trident submarine jockeying for position in the Straits of Juan de Fuca near Bangor, Washington: "The air is the same air/ I breathed in Paradise/ and Buchenwald." Romtvedt travels from Hiroshima to Guatemala, from Zaire and Rwanda to Arkansas, collecting people and their stories. He is Everyman (and woman): His poems make it easy to recognize our common stake in world affairs. Highly recommended for anyone who reads poetry seriously.
- Louis McKee, Painted Bride Arts Ctr., Philadelphia
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.