Ontario: Brick Books, 2013
Reviewed by Delani Valin
Almost daily, we experience strange juxtapositions of the traditional and the modern, the old and the new. After a yoga class, students flock to their cellphones in order to catch up to the rest of us. Ceremonial tea and aspartame-filled energy potions are served side-by-side in bustling franchised coffeehouses. And yet we usually tread these strange pairings absent-mindedly. In John Reibetanz’s eighth book of poetry, Afloat, one witnesses these types of unexpected collisions manifold, and comes away with a multi-faceted understanding of the book’s main muse: water.
The heart of Afloat resides in the core section of the book, in a passage about the Three Gorges—a massive hydroelectric dam built along the Yangtze River. Reibetanz’s poem, “Wash”, is influenced by Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher active in 4th Century BC. Here, Reibetanz explores folklore and myth, as the lines from each stanza crash into each other eagerly: “the heavenly dragon/ leaps up each/spring from the river’s jade dungeons to race through veins of peach and plum and blossom as cloud-puffs whose breath scatters/dead leaves.”
Interestingly, Reibetanz maintains his uncanny ability to paint beautiful, crisp images while using more modern influences. Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, known for documenting massive-scale man-made projects (and their environmental consequences) is one of these influences. But Reibetanz also pulls from a very unexpected place: the poem “Liudong Renkou” features a violent passage reminiscent of popular video games. “It is an art/to swivel the arm so the spray of blood will not blind the screen and cost a penalty but you have to stop/at twenty bodies before the fleshmanglers scent you”. The comparisons Reibetanz creates allows one to toe a line between two worlds.
The sections adjacent to Reibetanz’s Lament of the Gorges, Waterborne and Airborne, also display a wide reach in terms of subject matter. These sections seem to ebb away from the vivid, visceral epicenter of Afloat. In this way, even the structure of Afloat mimics its watery muse.
Afloat is a substantial book of poetry that explores many angles while keeping Reibetanz’s strong, consistent voice.