Emptiness: Reviewed by Philip Gross

emptiness_cover_2

‘The richness of this book lies not in any one person’s contribution, but in the fertile space between them – between word and image, between languages, between word and silence, between landscape and light.’

Open a book called Emptiness, and you should expect a paradox… especially when the text consists of haiku. In that Zen-inflected world, the Void might be a synonym for everything as much as nothing – or at least for more than human minds can grasp. If you have an appetite for such teasing-out of our perceptions and conceptions, Ron and Gabriel Rosenstock’s collaboration will not disappoint.

This is not to overlook translator-poet Mariko Sumikura, whose words in Japanese are equally a presence with Gabriel Rosenstock’s haiku in two languages on the page. That too is a paradox, a good one: seeing the sense of the English, sensing the sound of the Gaelic, and meeting the Japanese characters as a boundary I can’t cross reminds me that language is relative. And then we have the photographs, which are where the project starts.

This at least is the message of the title page: the landscape photographs, then haiku responses, then translations. I suspect the situation, like most good collaborations, is not one-way – that there is a long-term and continuing conversation in the meeting of American photographer and Irish poet in the Irish landscape.

Even in visual terms, this ’emptiness’ is paradox. The landscapes might be void of human figures, but the visual impression is of fullness. Ron Rosenstock’s distinctive use of infra-red light gives many scenes a super-saturated look, like Wordsworth’s ‘visionary gleam’; every detail insists on itself, in ways that everyday looking filters out. The Buddhist vision can embrace this paradox, as also that of the flux of smoke and water appearing solid, as ‘a moment lingers / longer than is possible’ in the camera’s eye. The apparently simple expression of place discloses such complexity.

This might be the ‘meaning’ that Ron Rosenstock alludes to in his artist’s statement: a ‘meaningful photograph’, ‘a profound depth of meaning’, ‘connecting with meaning and spirit’. The reader will make his or her own cultural connections, as the poems do, bringing terms like ‘born again’, ‘our frozen sins’ and ‘pilgrims’. Elsewhere they cite ‘the ancient roots of all languages’, ‘an ancient verse’, implying a timeless wisdom, albeit one of transience. The unvisited graveyards and abandoned field walls of the West of Ireland offer us this sense maybe a little too easily, given the very particular histories that emptied them.

But reading the photographs does not depend on this. We feel the bare, most immediate thing: the experience of meaning-ful-ness – that the world, even at its emptiest, is full of presence. All our attempts to name that meaning might be a means to the end of simply being there. By one more creative paradox, the moments language comes closest to this depth and breadth is when the words are most specific:

Skaftafell in morning light –
an egg being crunched
by an Arctic fox

Sometimes, the revelation is not in words but in a gap between them, like the new sense opened up by the pause created by the break between lines 2 and 3 (which works, if I guess right, a little differently in the two languages here):

Foraois Chonga

d’fhéadfá teacht ort

féin

*

Cong Forest

one could find oneself

here

The richness of this book lies not in any one person’s contribution, but in the fertile space between them – between word and image, between languages, between word and silence, between landscape and light.

Philip Gross is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Wales.  His awards include the T.S. Eliot poetry prize for The Water Table, Wales Book of the Year for I Spy Pinhole Eye and the CLPE Award for children’s poetry for Off Road To Everywhere. His two latest works are the poetry/art collaboration A Fold in the River (with Valerie Coffin Price) and a new poetry collection, Love Songs of Carbon.

Buy Now.