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Review: & Silk & Love & Flame, by Birhan Keskin

Keskin uses simple word-pictures, yet carries off the tour de force of composing compelling poetry that leaves much to the reader's narrative imagination. As the pleasantly eccentric ampersanded title (& Silk & Love & Flame) of her selected poems suggest, her topic is love; but less the silky and ardent aspects of it than the losses, the separations, the hesitations. The title poem, originally included in a collection called I may Return Unhappily (1994), opens with these telltale lines: "It all happened / because I am so afraid of flowing to you, / this is why waterfalls also interest me."

Not only are Keskin's cognitive leaps (here between "flowing" toward another person and "waterfalls") typical, but also her use of elements from the natural world as correlatives for thoughts and feelings. Sometimes imagery involving landscapes stands for emotions; just as often, however, the landscape is the poet. This especially obtains in the collection States of the Earth (2002), where mountains, glaciers, lakes, seas, deserts, and other geographical features become one with the poet. Here Keskin transmutes herself into a "plain".

The symbolism is elementary, but its personal analogies or, indeed, Baudelairean "correspondences" are palpable. Here, as elsewhere, the reader is rarely made aware of the details of these correspondences, yet through emblematic landscapes or natural things, such as the mountains, marshes, and mist, the narrator asserts her place in the world, her being-in-the-world, and more intimate feelings as well, like sorrow or loneliness. When Keskin is, briefly, more autobiographically factual, it is usually only after she has transposed in such ways the outline of an unspoken story, which often comprises the woes and turmoil of an amorous relationship. Direct references to her biography, as in the third line of the following short poem, rarely reveal anything precise, and this intentional vagueness is intriguing:

You turned me into dry grass
That sweats out its juice.
Before I turned forty, why?
Now my breath is mist on glass in the winter room
Once I was purple wind on the steppe.

Melody from Ba (2005)