Wings of Smoke.
Jim Pascual Agustin.
The Onslaught Press. 2017. 92 pp.
I first connected with Jim Pascual Agustin on the bookish social media site Goodreads when we had both entered poems in a contest there. Over the years that have passed since then, I have had many more opportunities to read his work, and "Tekla at the Grand Parade" appeared in the Word Poem Special Feature in the July/August 2016 issue (one year ago!) of Eclectica. But it wasn't until I read his collection Wings of Smoke that I had a real sense of what his work was accomplishing. As I read the collection for the first time, jotting down lines that resonated with me, I was also taking notes about how, from my standpoint as a reader, these poems were really a primer on how close observations and changes in perspective enable a person to effectively live in the world. In Wings of Smoke, we not only see into the lives of human characters, but also non-human ones such as birds and insects. But even in these poems that focus more on animals and the natural world, the human (and ways of being human) is always present.
Every reader, of course, brings different experiences to the words that they encounter, and when I saw the title of "Do Millipede's Bleed?" I shuddered a bit. Millipedes aren't my favorite arthropod, and I read the poem with a little trepidation. But as I read, I ceased to shudder. I reread the poem several times, focusing on the penultimate stanza: "Then up close I see / it is hunched over / a drop of water, / drinking. Tiny feelers / waving back and forth / in a gentle rhythm." Just like the poem's speaker, I initially hesitated, easily able to imagine myself looking for "a comb, a slipper, / anything to flick it away, / perhaps crush it." But as I found myself looking more closely at the many-legged critter, I joined the poem's speaker in a more sympathetic awareness. And while this poem grounds us firmly in the perspective of the human observer seeing the world with new eyes, others put us more within the animal awareness, floating between what they see and hear and what the humans around them do.
A poem that stood out to me early in the collection, "Bladed Spurs," focuses on fighting roosters living under a family's porch, and though it could be inferred from the title, the reader comes to understand what manner of creature it is living under the porch as they read. What will continue to stick with me from this poem is that the roosters hear the sounds made by various family members: "my mother screaming / in a bad dream, my sisters fighting / over a hairbrush or a shirt, my father / cursing at a missed hoop shot / on TV. But they never heard me." The speaker who is not heard by the roosters is actually the one who feeds them. And while one of the main actions of the poem focuses on vision—when the father trims back the comb of one rooster so that it doesn't cover the bird's eye in a fight—I found myself particularly interested that the narrator of the poem thought about what the birds could hear from their vantage point beneath the house and the father thought only of their lives "where death awaited with beaks / and bladed spurs." Perception and awareness are everything, here as well as the thirsty millipede, and the narrator in "Bladed Spurs" is left with the feeling of "the rooster's heart / against my hands."
That this book could actually be read as a primer of advice is a thought that came to me early, actually in the second poem, "Pause"—which is itself good advice. The poem is a short one, only five couplets, and it describes a tree bending in the wind. But what made this poem so notable to me is that the reader is put in the position of both tree and wind. What the tree must do is "learn a new angle sunward," but taking that idea farther, "What is less apparent is the path / the wind must make. It has to unravel, / splitting itself into countless strands / to navigate between each leaf, each branch." So it isn't enough to just grow in the direction of the sun. We must also be willing to unravel ourselves when necessary, for the world asks more skill at navigation of difficulties. This is all advice that I'm willing to take, and there is so much more in this collection that brings the reader closely into the lives of people, animals, and the natural world, suggesting that small and thoughtful shifts at how we approach what is around us can make a lasting difference. The idea of unraveling is a good one to keep with us, and letting go of common perceptions of what we might have once believed about the world around us, we might learn to see it more fully and more truly.
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