By John Zheng
What flows through L.R. Berger’s Indebted to Wind is the sensibility presented in each poem. It is a physical and emotional response to what the poet sees, experiences, and feels, a visual chord struck in her senses. This sensibility urges Berger to express through images and evokes the reader to experience or revisualize what she gains through her conscious looking.
The title poem, “Indebted to Wind,” brings what the wind carries: the “dandelion silk dispatching seed” and the “neighbor’s trashcan lid… / hurled in a tempest / against the bedroom window.” The definitions that wind offers are “howling, love cry, / lamentation,” inviting associative thinking about the human characteristics of wind. This sensibility juxtaposes nature with human nature with such a visual effect in this stanza:
Here, the wind functions like a gentle lover. If it evokes a memorable scene in the past, it also blows to the future and “tutors your own breath / to extinguish the flame” of an unhappy relationship or an unrequited love.
Wind has been a favorite image for poets. My favorite poems are Emily Dickinson’s “The Wind Tapped Like a Tired Man” and James Stephens’ “The Wind.” Both poets personify the wind to show weariness and temper. In Berger’s poem, wind, as an element of nature, acts kinetically. It dispatches, wakes, hurls, howls, cries, tutors, extinguishes, fumbles, stings, whips, and lifts, activating the human experiences or encounters with nature. Therefore, what Berger presents through the image of wind is the visual sensibility to nature and human nature.
“Wind Breaks into the House” is another wind poem. It is a lyric that describes the mess caused by the wind: papers driven off the desk, paragraphs plastered against walls, and stanzas blown into corners of chaos. But the poet catches the moment to experience the wind by unzipping her sweatshirt to let it sweep through her body with whatever it picks from the fields it passes. This unzipping is then a way to open the mind to nature, to be with nature, and to be a part of nature.
“38th and Chicago” is a poem using the image of the personified wind. It is a tribute to the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The title mentions the two street names, at the intersection of which the murder occurred. The poet re-envisions the murder with the focus on the knee that kills Floyd. The humanized wind which embodies the killed begs the police not to clench tight, but the officer refuses to give an opening for the wind to wedge. The poet smartly sets up the contrast of the sympathetic wind against the brutal knee. While the wind becomes humanized, the officer becomes dehumanized by clenching tight. Wind, as the poet says in another poem, “Ask Anybody,” is “God’s great source / of subsequently / visible gestures.” Yet, the personified wind in “38th and Chicago” is killed by the knee on its neck, revealing a conflict between nature and human nature.
While poems about wind are apparent in Berger’s collection, other poems about sensibility are also worth reading. “Palliative Care” is one that describes human nature in a difficult situation. It uses the apostrophe to address Hal to express a feeling and an experience both sweet and bitter. It is divided into eight numbered sections, each focusing on a part of the patient’s physical, emotional, or spiritual state, as seen in section 1:
The speaker consciously seeks a way of showing concerns and a way of optimizing the quality of life through palliative care. In a sense, this poem deals with the difficult time of death and the sensibility to the true meaning of existence.
The second section focuses on the spiritual state of the patient who, though lying on the sickbed like fugitive colors of Hal’s final watercolor, smiles with the shining eyes which “were steady blue flares up ahead / on the gravel of night’s back road.” His smile is contagious and has the power to change everybody’s mood. His good spirit or optimism makes him strong in dealing
In the next section, the speaker imagines the daily changes in the health condition of the patient imagined as a wooden broom, a sleeping prince, and one “fallen nestling, featherless, / still breathing splayed” or one with “a living face / of Christ crucified.” Here, wind appears as an image of death, trying to take him away by “circling the hospital / with something like intention, whirlpool of winter…” Section 5 presents the thought of the speaker, her exhaustion from caring for the sick, and her dream “about birds [they] don’t have.” But whatever comes next is inevitable and must be faced. The last two stanzas of section 5 are repeated in the last section.
A reader may notice that blue is the color in section 6. With its function to string all sections, blue adds a touch of sadness when the blue sky is fractured by winter trees in section 1, shines in the patient’s eyes in section 2, and offers a blurry sheen like chicory weed and forget-me-not. To both characters, each is a forget-me-not in each other’s eyes, as their life is a companionship of blue, shining, blooming, tolling till their last conversation.
Section 7 is like the speaker’s confession in a bitter and difficult tone:
It is ironic that while death is an inevitable finale of life, the dying person’s desire to live is still as strong as a newborn’s. The palliative care lasts for forty days and nights. During this time, “sometimes the heft of a word’s / true meaning comes to find us.” Yet, when death finally comes, the meaning of the word is just a moment of now, a finale whispered, or metaphorically, the dappled light of the virgin forest finally leaves. Sadness stays and departs at the same time as the light of blue finally fades. “Palliative Care” deserves careful reading, yet one question that haunts this reviewer is why a couple of stanzas reappear in different sections. I guess the poet must have a reason for that.
In brief, Berger’s poems are indebted to nature and reveal human sensibility, something that seems to have gradually faded in today’s human society.
You can find the book here: https://www.deerbrookeditions.com/indebted-to-wind/
John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.