Olivia McNeely Pass, Ph.D.
Review of In Ordinary Light
]In Ordinary Light, poetry from Louisiana’s recent Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque, is anything but ordinary. However, I well appreciate and applaud the implication of the title. He, like Robert Frost, treats the mundane as extraordinary–sublime. Spirituality is, indeed, the essence of Bourque’s poems, and it is his spirituality that takes the ordinary in life into the light of the spirit.
In this collection, Darrell Bourque includes poems from all of his other volumes of poetry, including Holding the Notes, which also came out this year. Consequently, those of us who have read Bourque’s poetry for years will both revisit familiar poems and become acquainted with new ones. He often uses “ordinary” family photographs as his inspiration, along with works of art—visual and musical. There are also poems with biographical information about geniuses such as Einstein, Bach, and Lincoln—far from the ordinary in life, but Bourque often zeroes into the ordinary in their lives. With Einstein, it is his personal life since “He failed / at marriages and loves” (230). The ordinary, human element is prominent throughout this volume.
A motif in this verse, which is captured by the volume’s title, targets the effect that light has both visually and spiritually, elevating and expanding the mundane. Likewise, the images on the front and back covers of the book, which are of a stained glass piece created by Bourque’s wife Karen, connect well with this volume’s poetic mission. Karen has captured in glass the image of an ordinary tree, but she has made it extraordinary through her art and through a particular medium that is subject to enhancement by light.
A poem that truly emphasizes light throughout is “The Hand of Thought” (232). Here Bourque artistically notes the various effects of light—emphasizing it by means of enjambment:
We want the windows
in our houses to give us steady beams
of light. In autumn we want yellow indoor
light to fall softly on the carpets, the creams
and reds and blues hardly disturbed. Winter
light will be dense and heavy, table weight.
A keen observer, but like his wife an artist–yet one in verse, not stained glass, delicately using his knowledge of the world and his keen sensitivity to it to create a brilliant volume of verse.
Bourque’s poetry often centers on the visual artists who are noted for the way in which they use light, e.g., Vermeer and Dürer. Bourque’s proclivity toward visual images that capture light allows him to probe that same light through words. The title poem of In Ordinary Light appears in Part III and is a sonnet about Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Little Street (1658). It describes the ordinary scene in Vermeer’s work—children playing jacks or observing bugs. “Everything is unhurried and unremarkable here” (35). The remarkable, however, enters by means of the light of a crescent moon and the lightness of the white skirting: “A miracle the way all the white skirting / in the painting offsets the weight of the upper stories—.” In the same way, the spirituality Bourque offers in his verse offsets and elevates the coarseness of everyday life that is presented there.
Many of Bourque’s poems speak especially well to Louisianians like me and say so much about our state. His poems give such grace to the ordinary lives of Louisiana citizens. For example, the poems about his own family—his father, mother, uncles, cousins, his wife, his daughters, and his grandchildren—tell us so much about who we are and wherewe are. Are we in “ordinary light”? Generally, we think of ourselves as such. But Bourque, like any effective poet, guru, or spiritual guide, elevates our minds, eyes, and ears via his poetry to the understanding he has of the people and things around him as he casts various intensities of light upon them.
One such poem that stands out in my mind is “My Mother Gets Dressed for Sunday Mass” (196-7). In this poem Bourque describes his mother’s putting her finishing dusting of Coty face powder (my mom used the same powder, which pulled me instantly into the poem) as she gets ready to go to mass:
What she did do was to pull the skin
on her nose down by tightening the muscles
of her upper lip (196).
A tiny movement like that, captured in verse, is sheer genius. As I read this poem, I had to imitate that motion, and I found it interesting that a person who does not use facial powder noticed and captured a uniquely female action. This alone demonstrates the genius of Bourque’s work—the way he reveals such minute, ordinary times, transforming them into enormous, extraordinary ones. The poem ends with his mother’s straightening her pillbox hat and getting into the car with her waiting family. There was
No acing off—more a song
of praise. What lord would have wanted
less from one of his beloved after all (197).
Bourque’s poem itself is such a “song of praise” and nothing less than the Lord would desire.
Another such poem is “My Father in the Sun” (212). Darrell Bourque captures in this poem a picture of his father—“a proper, shy / man” as he basks shirtless in the sun.
This is a different father from the one who works
long hours without complaint. This is one scene
we will not see repeated. He has given himself over
to the luxury of sun for simple pleasure.
Much like the poem about his mother, this poem captures the essence of a simple moment in life, but, by capturing it in verse, Bourque creates a truth. Thus, he concludes the poem with the line, “I’d like to think he dreamed a heaven he could go to.” Here a simple sunbathing scene moves an earthly event onto a spiritual plane.
Darrell Bourque uses a variety of poetic forms in this collection. He experiments with the sonnet form often and has free verse and haiku as well. Any reader of verse, but especially Louisianians and fans of his poetry, will find much to enjoy in his recent volume In Ordinary Light.