From Every Moment A Second, by Robert Okaji
Published by Finishing Line Press
Submitted by Jeff Santosuosso
Those who enjoy poetry that reveals much by saying little should check out Robert Okaji’s new chapbook, From Every Moment a Second. Okaji masters white space, implication, presence and absence in this pithy yet brief collection. He mines themes of humans and nature, their adjacency and interdependence. He presents the cycles of life, of change and transformation, not only among beings themselves, but as they interact with the rest of the natural world. From this physical environment, he touches on metaphysical themes, spirituality, a heightened sense of natural order.
Suitably, he opens with “Magic,” the seen and unseen, illusion. We cannot trust our eyes. Things are, but we doubt. “You give me nothing to hold, and for this/are blessed.” So much going on here. Syntax befuddles logic, trips us up. “You” are blessed? We realize this “nothing” is not an absence, but an affirmation. Hence the blessing. Welcome to intangibility, the world beyond the physical. “Words conceal what the night cannot,” Okaji’s speaker continues, inverting perceptual convention. As if we’re attending a magic show, Okaji signals that all is not as it might appear to the untrained eye.
So he trains us. In scene after scene, he reveals the hidden, lifting the veil of convention and language to uncover what words have concealed. “Mayflies” comes in couplets, like males and females, humans and insects, ability and inability, purpose and desire. The speaker witnesses death among the mating ritual, and wonders, “still I dream of flight.” “Take Away” catches us off-guard with the near-realism of “the economy of dying.” The speaker laments things taken away: “Grief enriches no one,” yet closes with the agonizing image of a mother “cradling pain in both arms,” while “The second shares her shadow.” Relationships, comparative anguish – these are laid bare for us to interject ourselves, a masterful drawing in, literary magic. We begin to understand the sleight of hand, the craft.
The legerdemain twists like a tongue in cheek, particularly in “Runaway Bus,” an unlikely treatment of a chest cold, ironically a fresh, light breath among deep inhalations. Even the chapbook title, excerpted from “Flame,” is a bit of a pun. “Second” is not a portion of time. It is a descendant, progeny. This verbal game reminds us of the emphasis on relationships, cause and effect, development. Later, “Latitude” revisits the age-old conundrum about chickens and eggs, this time a playful tangent, complete with a frying pan, salt, and butter. “What Feet Know” reminds us at first of our childhood innocence, but compels acknowledgement of how darkness defines the light.
“To the Light Entering the Shack One December Evening” is the masterpiece of the journey, a study in light and darkness, life and death, presence and absence. Even the impermanent affirms beyond mortality. The speaker sees that “The pear tree’s ghost shudders./Water pools in the depression of its absence.” Following the heartbreaking “Bottom Falling,” a tender study on the loss of death, this indirect piece reveals by questioning. “Will you leave if I open the door?” The speaker illuminates, partially, cloaking his revelation with, “You are not death, but its closest friend.”
“The Resonance of No,” with its ominous title, pairs the quotidian and tangible with the metaphysical and intangible. His speaker muddles through a day, unable or perhaps unwilling to shake himself of the relentless administrative demands of his father’s death. Even the date he will visit the grave is unclear, but the speaker cannot escape this call. For all our daily cares consume, we must face truths, confront our mortality, feel the pit in our stomachs as we recognize the pull of the superordinate.
Breath, smoke, and breeze dominate “Every Wind.” Those wisps come and go, as if cloaked and revealed, first fixed in our vision, then disappearing. Each breath is life-giving, but it must be followed by a “second.” Okaji instructs, “Every wind loses itself/no matter where/it starts.” If we fail the next breath, we perish. The speaker suffers, his “Grief ages one thread at a time,” as he searches for someone. That someone could be anyone. No matter, the poem is about the pining. The deceased has lost itself like the wind. In “With No Mountain in View,” the speaker reminisces, nearly luxuriating, then snaps back from his fantasy as “A crow flaps away.” Departure, breezes, and motion resulting from wing flaps, the essential act of a bird, carry us away. We’re not even sure where we’re going, how the magician pulled off the trick. The speaker’s moment is “seconded” by uncertainty, but seconded nonetheless. Even in departure and absence, we find ourselves in a new here.
“Privilege” clarifies Okaji’s theme beyond doubt. “Every hour becomes another” opens the piece, a flag in otherwise shifting ground, as clarifying as “Strong coffee, books. A smile.” We can rely on those, they’re dependable. His speaker has found confidence, in the presence of a loved one, “as the lights go out/and we wonder when they’ll return,/not if.” Here, the future looms, although Okaji steps back, realizing that, “Anything can happen, and frequently does.” The title works hard, revealing the optimism and near-immortality the speaker expresses. Yet he’s ready for uncertainty. The “second” is the privilege, no matter what it brings. The future is coming, unclear as it may be, it is. Even in times of loss and separation, we can rely on something to follow. With assertion, he and his loved one “open the door and step out, unhindered.”
The work crescendos in the aforementioned “Flame,” a study on the endurance of the human spirit amid hardship. “On the Burden of Flowering” pushes the envelope, straight from the title. The burden? The speaker’s marigold had been dying. “Today it/stands tall./Yellowing.” Is this life or death? Triumph or defeat? Why must the flower pursue its fatal duty? That is the burden of flowering, one the marigold assumes without hesitation.
“Two Cranes on a Snowy Pine (after Hokusai)” returns to the interdependence of things in nature. “Who knows where bird/begins and tree/ends” pulls us into a place of peace, of things and their environment. Like the marigold, the cranes assume their own burden, amid the threat of winter. Yet there they are. Okaji then shifts from the pine to the oak, this time a rotting one in “Firewood,” a seemingly immortal tree, huge, having survived burdens no man ever could. There, but soon to disappear – at the speaker’s respectful hand. The human interprets his world, his humble place within it, bounded by things mightier than he could ever be, yet participating in their disappearance. Yet this respect, this near-reverie assures us that that moment will be followed by a second. The work closes with “To the Lovely Green Beetles Who Carried My Notes into the Afternoon,” a study in acknowledgement and gratitude, a recognition of order, of how the speaker’s words are carried off “never to be assembled,/and better for it.” There can be no doubt. Their impermanence is not futile. Nor have they perished. Nor are they mortal. “Such beauty should not be bound,” we read, recognizing that their passing has left its mark. From that moment, a second has been born.
This brief work uncovers deep themes with a light touch, uplifting the physical to reveal the metaphysical, offering that things relate in place and time, with mortality not more than a breath, a wisp of smoke, here then gone as moments and things have seconds.
Robert Okaji lives in Texas. His work has appeared in such publications as Mockingheart Review, Eclectica and Otoliths, and can also be found on his blog, https:robertokaji.com.