"South From Istanbul"
Poems by Ken Hebson
Green River Press, 2013
In his new book of poems, "South From Istanbul," Ken Hebson, of Guilford, explores the Buddhist thought that "a move in space would not/affect at all who we are." In two dozen poems, Hebson takes us to a generous portion of the world where he captures his sense of place through close attention to detail.
In spare and concrete language Hebson helps us feel places we are not likely to know firsthand. Here there are no slant truths (as Emily Dickinson might expect), none of the confessional reveries that crowd contemporary poetry. What we see is what we get (the way William Carlos Williams might say it).
On the shore of the Dardanelles, for instance, we come upon a man who "gazed at his wife, who was washing his feet." Riding a Jawa (motorcycle) on the coast of Turkey, we come to "a weathered sign at the side of the road" that points the way to TROIA, that ancient city "five thousand years old and nine cities deep, /each one built upon the last." Swimming off the "black sand beach" at Chios, Greece, we discover lucent insects "nestled in our pubic hair/like tiny lights on a Christmas tree ..."
There’s delightfully more: At Kathmandu, "found the rancid yak-butter tea refreshing,/and gave a spin to countless prayer wheels"; in Barcelona, racing a BMW 250, "face-time with raw fear"; at Obama (Japan), "They had t-shirts made/and wore them proudly./ Obama for Obama." Somewhere on the Omi-Imazu line, "a pair of fuzzy monkeys/perched on a bus-stop bench/ and they wink and wave./ What do we say now?"
But Hebson’s collection is not travelogue. Interspersed among the place poems are beautiful pieces speaking to the human condition. About anticipation and disappointment: "Rumor has it she was returning today/and I was at the station with violets." About loss: "As for the red plaid hunting coat/Šthe house was saved, but the coat was lost." About aging: "I bought a used BMW roadster/ŠEveryone has an opinion /ŠIt’s whimsical, comical, a tad sad/an old man’s folly, a mid-life crisis."
Hebson draws poetry from his life on a farm in southern Spain. "The evening chores call/but there is no great urge to leave/the fire and the family/this winter afternoon." But the chores are done: "With my head pressed against her hot flank/that smells so clean and bovine,/I gently pull the warm liquid/from her swollen udder/and tell her how fine she is." And this advice for gardeners: "We don’t fence the garden./Instead, my wife writes notes to the animalsŠ." In cozy, gently humorous verse Hebson finds the universality of farm work.
Hebson grew up in Detroit where, "You are what you drive." In his poem, titled simply, "Rides," following a catalog of cars driven by family members and friends, we come to these lines about buying a car that ought to be posted in every car dealer’s showroom: "At times we pass on pure practicality/and go with what fires the soul./Those are the rides that define us."
Worthwhile traveling, however global, is not measured in miles, but in experience. Near the end of his book, Hebson sums up: "I have come/ten thousand lives/to sit in these bird tracks/on just this beach."
"South From Istanbul" is a handsome book designed and produced locally by Green River Press. Hand sewn and letterpress printed (Hebson printed some of the pages himself), this is an elegant book to hold and to read.
Narrated by Peter Coyote,
Ken Hebson will join Wyn Cooper in an evening of poetry at Brooks Memorial Library on Monday, April 29, at 7 p.m. The authors’ books will be available for sale and autographing. "South of Istanbul" is also available at Everyone’s Books and from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Butterfield writes from Hinsdale, N.H. His new poetry collection, "Field Notes," will be released by Encircle Publications in June.