Prayer beads. Broad plains. Mountains. Birds. An inexplicable yearning for what cannot be seen. An inexplicable joy in discovering a hidden face of the divine. Fifteen short poems give us glimpses into all of these in Nic Sebastian’s new chapbook Dark and Like a Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine (Broiled Fish and Honeycomb Nanopress).(Cover image above). Spirituality can be a tricky terrain to navigate in writing, as every reader brings her own prejudices and beliefs to bear. Nic explores and even exploits this broad range of ideas in her collection, using recurring motifs such as animals and colors to explore the inner landscape of spirituality as something that is deeply rooted in the natural world. Animals figure prominently in nine of the fifteen poems in this collection, a motif that is certainly significant. Whether used to illustrate the earthly –
my days are flocks of starlings
wheeling dark waves
of loud chatter
(from “my days are flocks of starlings”)
–or the divine –
I am the golden snake
gliding into you, my inside
is wider by far
than my outside
(from “the boy and the plain”)
animals here represent much more than creatures. They are symbols of our own struggles to define our connection with something larger than ourselves. Whether ominous (“the olive sheen of mamba/noiseless in the acacia”) or innocent (“nesting swallows in the belfry”), the inclusion of these animals can help the reader to reflect on the instinctive, animal part of the self that is required to maintain any sort of faith.
The colors and shapes of the natural world serve much the same purpose. The reader is drawn into the mountains (the majestic, imposing face of the divine), through forests (the confusing, unnavigable journey of belief), and over the plains (the broad, flat expanse of unknowing) in these poems. These landscapes are alive with color, especially in the poem “the girl and the hours” where the first hour is rich/blue salt, the second/emerald oboe.
My favorite poems in the book are three that contain prayer beads as an integral image. Prayer beads are concrete, physical manifestations of a very private communication with the divine, and they counterbalance the other focus of these poems, the beloved. In each of these poems, the relationship with the beloved seems ephemeral, but the associations with the beads connected to each one are profound and lasting, almost equating the beloved with the divine. These poems also each occur in a very specific place: on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river at the gold-shot pain/of sunset, on the Plaza Mayor as the tall hills of Villa de Leyva/hulk blue all around us, and inside a souk at Muscat where the fingers of Hassan’s blind grandmother/are cobweb breath and leaf fall. These provide direct contrast to the mysterious, more vague landscapes of the rest of the poems in the collection, and they came alive for me in a more visceral way.
The book is published through the nanopress model, making it available in print, audio, and downloadable e-pub/pdf formats. Nic is a forerunner and a promoter of this publication model, and it is successful here. Beth Adams, the editor of the collection, has done a fine job of steering it into cohesion with a subtle touch. A different arrangement of the poems may have shown the motifs to be too obvious or heavy-handed, but the collaboration between author and editor weaves them through the collection deftly, like mantras or refrains.
The only thing I might have changed about the collection would be the placement of the introductions. Both Nic and Beth have written front matter that explains the evolution of the poems and of the collaborative process. I found this information interesting, but I wish it were placed at the back of the collection along with the biographical information. This would have allowed me to read the poems without any preconceptions. Could I have skipped over the forewords? Of course, but I tend to read a book front to back (as opposed to Kristin Berkey-Abbott, who likes to dip in and tread around a bit, as she mentions in part one of her review, which also gives links to many of the technical aspects of the collaboration). This is certainly a minor issue in such a lovely endeavor, and I highly recommend you go here to download, listen, or purchase and have your own conversation with the divine.