A Review of "For the Kingdom" by Anthony Piccione
The attractive collection, with an apt cover ("Genesee Scenery") by Thomas Cole, an early 19th century painter who focused on symbolic landscapes, opens with the dedication: "for our neighbors living in exile" and a Wang Wei quote: "No one lives here in the mountains/but you can hear whispering sometimes/from deep in the woods, at sundown,/behind the faint blue light over moss." One could assume the dedication refers to Jesus's definition of neighbor in the Gospel of Matthew, meaning everyone around us (enemy and friend included), suggesting Piccione's companionability towards all of humanity, and also implies, through the collection, not only physical exile, but also emotional and spiritual separation; the quote evokes how Piccione works best: through the representation of spirituality in natural imagery.
For the Kingdom's first division , "Dreaming the Face," focuses on conflicts of living in the flesh, such as "what's holy" and "the spirit alive/of the softness inside, the world of flesh, the one you love." One of the clearest yet dazzling pieces in section one, "To A Woman Undressing At A Window In 1953," finds a boy realizing the wonder and duality of flesh:
A miracle! And if I was struck dumb by the chest's thump
The narrator feels in his own body the awesome effects of this neighbor's beauty, God's creation, by swooning while at the same time realizing, at the poem's end, that his own flesh can be used for sexual pleasure and also for spiritual growth. Piccione's wonderful use of the word touch not only refers to sexual touch though, but also implies touch in the sense of reaching out to another human, interaction, crossing the space between people. The boy recognizes his own ability to effect change through use of his body just as the woman's flesh has effected him, and so, in this way, he matures.
The voice in "To A Woman Undressing" appears in the other poems in "Dreaming the Face," and indeed, in the collection, but the perspective varies from first person to third person omniscient so Piccione can flesh out not only the narrator's stories, but those of others. Some of the poems in this section (and in the collection) are less concrete, but the strangeness of perspective and lyrical clarity makes them no less interesting. Take "Now That We Know Where We Are" for example. The poem begins with the lines: "It's time to start feeling our way again. We/can call each thing its own sweet secret desire." While these words intrigue me with their mystery, they also distance me from the narrator. Such distance can at times be mystifying. The language is beautiful, yet not entirely penetrable.
"Night Watch," For the Kingdom's second section, continues Piccione's discussion of loneliness, flesh, and faith, in the light of television, bathroom mirrors, and the moon. Much like in section one, the narrator reveals his growing realizations about faith lived out in flesh, but Piccione allows this through a greater variety of poetic style and form. The poems range from stanzas of quatrains to couplet experiments and one-stanza pieces with unique indentions. They also continue to range from the mysteriously vague to the more concrete and cohesive, but all portray Piccione's facility with language, his ability to convey spirit in word. "Night Watch" contains a number of well-grouped poems about the narrator's daughter and his own interaction with the natural world. One particularly notable poem, "Evening Bath," a series of four numbered stanzas, uses the narrator's 1912 bathtub as its main symbol for spiritual and emotional cleansing; the narrator's mind roams from the "old slab woodshed" where the tub came from, to "the demon gate-guardian" he "touched and took into" himself "far away once in China," to "oily promises to women" and his "body of sorrow," to the final acceptance of his fellow humans' meaning in his life and his role in theirs.
The third division, "Air," stands as one of the most accessible, and (for this reader) of the most enjoyable portions, of For the Kingdom. Comprised of three prose poems, "Air," "For My Students in Beijing," and "Old Jericho Turnpike," section three acts as a respite of memory. "Air," the strongest, takes the reader through the narrator's life, from childhood to married life, discovering along the way that "the earth is gentle, not a trick, this is what a sky does," that he can "read and...write out ANTHONY PICCIONE, my own real name I wept over when I first saw its tangled length," riding the Greyhound bus, "filling with darkness like a bedroom, not just shadows but everywhere, the air itself changing into something heavier," and his wife and he, lying in bed, "air rushing over me, and the children are lifting their song somewhere, and the Tibetan foreheads are kissed in air and forgiven."
Sections four and five continue the narrator's conversation about spiritual being and physical one with the reader through charged speech. Returning to more conventional forms, mostly quatrains, triplets, and one-stanza poems, Piccione's poetry speaks clearest when it uses essential particulars that evoke rather emote. Listen to the music in "With My Wife In Deepening Storm":
We stop hauling love up through ourselves,
The reader joins the poem's spectators in amazement at the narrator's and his wife's work for love, their deliberate reckless willingness to die for love. While some meanings in the poem remain mysterious (what is the "good shove?"), I still enjoy what Piccione has revealed to us. By the end of For the Kingdom, Anthony Piccione manages to effectively explore spirituality, sexuality, nature's effect on him as an author, and some of his roles in the drama of humanity. His willingness to experiment in the book encourages me to write, and to question the function of my spiritual beliefs in my writing, in all writing.