25 April 2008

Blackberries in the Dream House: Living, loving poetically

Blackberries in the Dream House
Diane Frank
1st World Library, 2003

One of the contributors to my ever-growing "to read" list (ok... pile; ok, ok... piles) is author/astrologer/rock star/pronoiac Rob Brezsny. Every Wednesday, he sends out an e-mail with horoscopes, inspirational quotes, selections from his books, and recommended readings ("Other Pronoia Resources"). In early March, I received the latest weekly Free Will Astrology e-mail (the webpage version is here) in which he recommended this novel. The entire recommendation took the form of this question: "What would happen to us if we were to undertake the discipline of turning our life entirely and self-consciously, into a poem?"

Blackberries in the Dream House is the Pulitzer-nominated tale of Yukiko, a geisha in 19th century Kyoto, whose life is breathed into being in exquisite, epigram-like chapters whose poetry is tangible. Although this work is Frank's debut novel, its author has been a practicing poet for some time and her loving attention to language is evident in each page, paragraph, sentence, and word. This is not a novel that I would have picked up off the shelf and read on my own; in fact, I'm not even sure where in a library or bookstore this would be shelved. Accordingly I am so grateful that it was recommended in the e-mail, that I ordered it through the library, and that I actually checked it out when it arrived. (By the time I picked it up at the library, I had begun my PKD project, and so I didn't even remember having placed the order for the book. In fact, the cover image is so unlike that of any book I'd "normally" read that at first I thought the book held for me by mistake.)

I am no poet, and so any ham-fisted attempts on my part to encapsulate the novel in terms of the characters and plot will, almost by definition, fail miserably in conveying the beauty and power of this book---I'm reminded of Thelonius Monk's comment on how writing about music is like dancing about architecture. So it is with a sheet metal worker's son trying to capture hallelujah poetry in ho-hum prose.

In brief, this is a love story and a tale of spiritual transformation, although that says very little in our world of debased "love" and commodified "spirituality." As mentioned above, Yukiko is a geisha trained in the arts of entertainment, culture, companionship, and physical love. She has her heart broken by her first real lover, Eitaro, when he leaves her to marry a woman his parents have chosen for him. After this, she becomes involved with Kenji, a young monk from the nearby Zen monastery, and it is Kenji who sets her on the path to self-discovery. After she begins to retreat within herself, she is sent to work and meditate with the local Buddhist nuns, where she discovers a profound sense of freedom and joy within the silence; she also realizes that the nunnery is not her home and the monastic vocation is not her calling, and so after healing her broken heart, she returns to her life as a geisha, where she is very in-demand due to her singular wildness and creativity. The tale twists to a close as she and Kenji consummate their love for one another in the midst of a seismic upheaval.

This was a delightful read and one that somehow filled my spirit with a sense of awe and playfulness, responses to the world that truly belong together but that so rarely co-habitate successfully. Thanks to Rob for the recommendation.

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