Kayak Lessons by Eric Greinke. 1787 Rhoda, Lowell, MI 49331: Free Books, 2009.
Reviewed by Judy Swann
Greinke is a socially conscious Michigan poet with roots in the Beats and the Sixties. He has been nominated for six Pushcarts and is a translator of Rimbaud who, along with Mallarmé and Baudelaire, were early practicioners of the prose poem. In the '70s, Greinke conducted workshops with Ginsberg and Bly, who Americanized the form.
So it seems fitting for Greinke to make the prose-poem his medium for these highly enjoyable kayaking-inspired insights.
Let's face it; much of poetry reflects the often sedentary nature of poets. Perhaps because of the divide between sports culture and arts culture, one is more likely to find poems about dancing, say, than hockey. In Greinke's hands, however, kayaking becomes as poetic as anything can be, a metaphor for living:
In kayaking, as in life, it's better to avoid excess baggage that can weigh you down. Unless you are going into the wilderness, you don't need to pack as if you are. With baggage bungied to your bow, you will be front-heavy. When white water hits, the waves will not flow smoothly across your bow as the designer intended. Rather they will be blocked by your baggage, which will become even heavier when soaked.
If you really feel the need to bring baggage, put it behind you, where it belongs. If you need to be buoyant, you must travel lightly. (p.8)
Greinke keeps his focus on the kayaking itself. He doesn't strain after loftiness or meaning. Nor does he have to. Kayaking effortlessly lends itself to his art:
Whenever you have a choice, paddle upstream first, while you're still fresh. Save the downstream run for the return trip. (p.16)
Sometimes, the paragraph-nature of the piece is equally as strong as its lineated-nature. Greinke writes:
When you come to the end of your run down the river you may regret that it couldn't go on longer.
If on the other hand you had a bad time perhaps capsizing & getting all muddy swearing & blaming your boat only to complete your trip in wet underwear you'll be damned glad the trip is over. (p.20)
But he could easily have written:
When you come to the end
of your run down the river
you may regret
that it couldn't go on longer.
If on the other hand
you had a bad time
perhaps capsizing & getting all muddy
swearing & blaming your boat
only to complete your trip
in wet underwear
you'll be damned glad
the trip is over.
Whereas the early French prose-poems sought out chaos, hyperbolized counterculture, and wanted to shock, Greinke goes for no-nonsense and clear-headedness. These are instructional pieces, not cameos or conceits or imagisms Their language is understated and unobtrusive:
Sometimes you will find yourself on a still pool. Don't just paddle through. This is your chance to float awhile on the thin line between the water & the sky. You can become a part of the pool's reflection, if you don't make ripples. (p. 17)
In his book A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Greinke's colleague Robert Bly navigates these same whitewaters in a consciously spiritual vehicle. Greinke, however, navigates them with an almost maternal real-worldliness:
Never forget your hoody. The weather will change & you can too. You can always take a hoody off, but if you forget to bring one, you may regret it. (p.7)
If you do not yet own an Eric Grienke book, this might be the one to start with.
Judy Swann's work [see also her review of Kolosso] has been published in Lilliput, Thema,Apparatus, Tilt Poetry Magazine, and other venues, both print and online. Her work at The Waters has been honored by both first and second place awards from the InterBoard Poetry Competition judges. She is an Iowan.