August 10, 2013

Synesthetic Repast: A Review of Katherine Rauk's Basil by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Black Lawrence Press
Basil by Katharine Rauk
Black Lawrence Press (2011)

Review by Mindy Kronenberg

There is a clever sort of alchemy at work in the poems in Basil, Katharine Rauk’s poetry chapbook. These thirty-one oddly compelling and challenging poems emerge as collective parables that, taken together, form a surreal, spiritual, and sensual guide to this and the next life.

Some poems combine prose and poetry narrative formats, transitioning between exterior and interior events, creating an effect of guided dreaming. For example, in “Suicide Rates Spike Near High Voltage Power Lines,” we meet a woman who knew “the metal switchbox outside her apartment window… was the very voice box of God,” and “ …felt God’s voice thrum around the rims of teacups, pulse along the floorboards’ crease.” As she lies on her bed awaiting her reward, the story breaks from prose into stanza, and the narrative distills into electrified testimony: [She felt]
God’s voice
sizzle in her teeth, she felt
God’s voice surge
down the wire
of her spine, and
God’s voice gather
in the satellite
saucers of her knees…
Rauk uses the same split in “Heartbone (I),” this time in the form of a wistful reverie, a poetic escape amidst a meal with repellent company. She has the ability to create micro-dramas with minimal context but tremendous tension, maintaining a visceral connection to the human dynamic in its many guises.

There are startling transitions in poems with such concrete titles as “Blood Orange,” “Basil,” and “After Cooking with Turmeric.” Each encounter is a journey that transcends culinary expectations. In the first, the poet asks: “Is this a fruit, / a wound, a lover?” In the last, an act of intimacy is savored as a synesthetic repast: “Now / we are opening / vaulted windows / to a sunlight of bees, / a thousand burnished / throats.”

Ultimately, there is a great deal of longing in the poems in Basil, desire entwining with ambiguity, seeking reason or redemption. In “Vignette,” enchantment and superstition take hold in a ritual for a woman wishing for motherhood. Rauk writes, “…so she tied a cucumber to her waist. // Cucumber vines crept beyond / the edges of the garden plot / like sticky fingers swiping from the sweet jar.” In “Heartbone II,” the poet/narrator seeks discovery in the intricate parts of herself—“My nub, my sweetness, my buried / bruise. My blue note and knotted / fruit stone, my blood knocking at the edge / of known…” By presenting an inventory of tactile and temporal elements (“root bits and flesh / snips, snarls of hair that won’t let loose. Made of loss, made of juice…”), she wonders if her own personhood will fully emerge among the sum of her parts. This speaks to the poet’s earnest process in each work in Basil, a hunt for the self within the confounding yet comforting sensory-tangled world.

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