NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
A Partial View Toward Nazareth by Kathryn Rantala
(Casa de Snapdragon Publishing LLC, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2010)
I have to say that this book intrigued me right from the outset. It is hard to classify since it is neither poetry nor prose in the conventional sense and yet it succeeds in being both at the same time. I am not even sure if it could be called a prose poem since it is the length of a novel with distinct breaks like chapters but the lines never fail to sing. Reading it, I was reminded very much of the Ian Robinson / Ray Seaford collaboration, Thunder on the Dew…an intriguing work in which each writer gave free reign to his imagination whilst at the same time making some sort of connection with whatever had been written by his counterpart. The means may be different on this occasion, but the sense of interconnectedness is there.
In her book, Kathryn Rantala presents us with five narratives that explore perceptions of loss and the need to recapture through small things the beauty that personalises our everyday lives through architecture, music, art and the natural world.
Despite the fact that “Nazareth” appears in the title of the book, there is no particular religious framework here. Instead, there is more a connection with the seasons and a reverence for cherished things. The view towards Nazareth is only a partial one. Perhaps this is because it remains forever only on the horizon.
Music clearly plays an important role in Rantala’s life and there are references to it everywhere. Brahms, Chopin, Handel, Paganini and Wagner are all named at various moments throughout the text. In The Patient Bearing of Trials there is the tuning of stringed instruments and we are introduced to a woman who often listens to gavottes and tarantellas while preparing dinner but switches to something more cello for the meal.
Try reading this book as if it were a musical score. Listen to its cadences and you will see what I mean. If you read it like this you will enjoy discovering the recurring themes that knit this work together into a coherent whole.
The second and third sectionss impressed me the most. In the second, Lost Secrets of Meteorology, we are introduced to the character of Ed and, more particularly, the weather. Cocooned in his house with the blinds pulled down so that he can imagine all the colours of the universe and not have to look out on the white landscape of snow, he passes the time watching his favourite movies. When he is not watching movies, he plays Handel’s Messiah. He knows that one day he will have to leave the house - that the time will come when he will be able to walk outside and not be engulfed by the snow. Until then, we follow his pre-occupations and get the sense of a man who is determined by his own means to see the winter out. The inner world and the outer world are clearly set apart and yet they each have an effect upon the other.
The reverence for cherished things is especially drawn out in the third section, The Jewel Encrusted Alligator. For me, this was the most intriguing part of the book and central to its whole theme. It is the most exquisitely written account of a woman who makes it her pilgrimage to retrieve all that she has lost. This is how it opens:
Her first husband was trained in reconnaissance, so getting loose of him had not been easy, his last maneuver employing an accomplice to take all of her collectibles from the house -for she was a devoted collector- and sell them in his shop. To be fair, he offered each of her art prints, etchings, marbles, miniature totem poles and Pre-Columbian clay heads back to her for half the retail price (that discount her allotment by marriage), providing she could get to the items before they were sold.
Here we have a story in a paragraph. This is Rantala’s style - an economy with words that is honed to an extraordinary degree of craft. Every so often remarkable statements come to the surface such as the one that follows immediately on from the passage quoted above:
“Nothing personal,” he said. Everything is personal.
It gleams like a jewel in the word-hoard.
There is a sense here that the objects we collect are an extension of our personality. Over time we become attached to them which is why this woman finds it so important to reclaim what has in effect become a part of herself. She realises that once you let go of the detail, you no longer feel so engaged. Things can disappear she tells her cat. When the cat himself disappears and fails to return he takes all the good ideas with him. Later we are told:
It is hard exactly to remember loss.
To Rantala, everything is imbued with life. Objects have their own life. It is a life we cannot fathom which makes it all the more mysterious. This leads to the central question and, coincidentally, the illustration on the book cover:
What is the life of things? Are three quart-sized Ball canning jars with tin lids filled with pre-1960 marbles enough?
Everything to do with the game of marbles [we are told] is round, deep, hard or human. Generally it is played in a ring that resembles Earth.
The unexpected element in her writing is a delight. Take this small cameo, for example. A man goes to sit down beside a woman…
He says “May I?” She crosses her legs and leans towards him and says “Possibly” and someone else laughs.
Elsewhere humour is expressed in the exaggerated wording of another scene—it is the snowbound man from the second section who has not checked his e-mail in two weeks. He wants to wait until he feels that he must check it or forfeit his life:
When that happens, when he is so summoned, he knows he will find great, glittering gems, messages of stunning importance, lines of significance beyond anything he could ever expect on this earth -words and pictures larger and more encompassing than the stratosphere; brighter and hotter than the outline of the sun; more inspiring and shattering than the images held deep down in the bellies of cameras lost in the darkest pockets of space.
Just as the man must go out of the house, the cat disappear never to return, there are, we are told, whole areas to be worked out and some items -snack foods and hair products, for instance -may not be available in what seems to be a foreign country. The view towards Nazareth is only partially glimpsed but steering a path in its general direction is fraught with difficulties and life at best is fragile:
The world, after all, is wide open. One must step carefully not to fall out of it.
This is a fascinating book and it deserves a wide audience. It fires the imagination on so many fronts and sets the pace for a new kind of fiction in our post-modern world.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His poems and short stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.