Book of Equanimity Verses (2014)

Jack Ross, ed.: brief 50 - the projects issue (February 2014)

Richard von Sturmer, Book of Equanimity Verses. Illustrated by Adel Salmanzadeh. ISBN 978-0-908-943-41-8. Auckland: Puriri Press, 2013. 60 pp. + 10 full-colour plates. RRP $28.50 plus $2.50 postage within New Zealand, and $3.50 internationally.

Richard von Sturmer: Book of Equanimity Verses (2013)

A lot of these poems are already familiar to those of us who’ve been following Richard’s work over the years. What effect does it have to see them all hundred of them finally gathered together, then? The playfulness was already apparent, as were the occasional asperities and harshnesses:
Geronimo surrendered
to the U.S. army
at Skeleton Canyon.
(So many had died
in the mountains.)
As an old man he sold
photographs of himself
for 25 cents each. [97]

What stops that from being a tanka? Why couldn’t that read:
Geronimo surrendered
to the U.S. army
at Skeleton Canyon
As an old man he sold
photographs of himself

Why, in other words, do we need those lines “So many had died / in the mountains”?

In his introduction to the collection, Richard quotes Yoel Hoffmann (translator of, among others, The Sound of The One Hand (1975) and Japanese Death Poems (1986)) to the effect that “the tanka poet may be likened to a person holding two mirrors in his hand, one reflecting a scene from nature, the other reflecting himself as he holds the first mirror.” That’s very like Stanley Kubrick’s dictum (quoted by Jack Nicholson in a film on the making of The Shining) that the filmmaker should not photograph reality, but photograph a photograph of the reality.

Hoffmann goes on to explain his own koan thus: “The tanka … provides a look at nature, but it regards the observer of nature as well.” Richard uses this to preface a justification for his own stylistic shift from the tanka to the eight-liner (“octet,” perhaps?):
With my additional three lines I was also able to fashion miniature stories, and the extended verse sequence allowed me to introduce a variety of textures, shadings, voices, animals and, at certain points, historical figures.

Going back to the Geronimo poem, I suppose one could say that the point of the tanka version is the irony of Geronimo’s life-or-death struggle against the U.S. government being turned into an over-simplified caricature of itself in his own lifetime, and the further irony of his own participation in that process. It is, then, a bitter poem where the central image is Geronimo, both young and old, while the observer (tanka poet) is forced to see himself as a collaborator – by the mere fact of writing about it – in this repetition of tragedy as farce.

What, then, of Richard’s own poem? Well, of course the strange fact of the surrender’s taking place at “Skeleton Canyon” – the fact that Geronimo and his men were starving, and that so many of them had indeed already starved to death – is highlighted and underlined. And the selling of the photographs (“for 25 cents each” – clearly a derisorily low figure) backs up this sense of Geronimo’s evolution as a physical being: a man, a skeleton, an image of a celebrity …

The story does indeed become paramount here, and one result is that Geronimo himself is enlarged from the protagonist of a simple morality tale of heroism selling out to commerce, and instead becomes the central figure in a version of life’s journey complete with myriad bitter-sweet flavours.

Complexity through simplicity remains Richard’s gift, and this book may be his most successful – because most disarming – yet.


brief 50 - the projects issue (2014): 154-56.

[575 wds]

brief 50 (2014)

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