By Yamini Pathak
John Bing’s debut poetry collection, Time Signatures (Kelsay Books, 2021), comes into the world in a year filled with pain – a global pandemic, the ugly aftermath of an ugly election, and too many expressions of racial violence. The poems in this book feel like a long, cool drink of water. They bring me to a place of stillness and healing.
Bing’s Afghan poems bring to light the rugged character and rough beauty of a place that nowadays is so often associated with violence and trauma. The poet came to Afghanistan as a friend, a Peace Corps volunteer, and the poems shine with an awareness of gifts both received and given. In “The Water Carrier”, he writes,
“I sat with new friends in full winter, eating dried fruits on a low covered table
While underneath, a bukhari with hot embers kept the cold at bay.”
In Afghan Pantoum, he captures the sweetness of finding a temporary home in unlikely places:
“Then spring came, mulberry trees in bloom.
After sitting in a hidden garden in Herat
I began to feel at home.”
On the opposite end of the world, just as faithfully captured, are the landscape of New Mexico and the cycle of seasons in the desert. Bing’s language is as brightly colored as the “turquoise glints” and the “blue flax flowers” that await the monsoon. I am possessed with the energies of the land as he rejoices,
“when at last the sky turns to gray
and water horsetails down in sheets
the arroyos run.”
Like “a long pendulum swinging between my past and my future”, the poems swing between past and present and carry intimations of the future. They trace his grandparents’ escape from Nazi Germany to the US. With his characteristic empathy, Bing turns our attention to those whose families were not lucky enough to have made it out alive. Throughout this collection, we are reminded how delicate the border is between life and death. Bing’s compassion extends to the natural world, as he mourns big and small losses. In “Moving On or Entropy”, he names “the black rhino, the ibex lost in the slime” and talks of forest fires “that blacken and cinder the oak and pine.” He realizes that time takes all, even loved voices, “rich as vintage wine.” Especially moving are love poems written to his grandparents, father, and his wife.
The author incorporates challenging traditional forms such as villanelles and a pantoum as well as a series of ekphrastic poems. One of my favorites, “Near the Borders,” is based on a painting by Frida Kahlo. It issues a warning:
“everybody lives near the border,
Especially those who believe they live safely
on the right side.”
These poems notice and praise small wonders, the “bright blue bowl of dark-red cherries,” that we encounter in our lives, all the while carrying an awareness of the inevitable mortality of all things, especially ourselves. Yet this knowledge of the end is not in the least disturbing. It is held gently, with the ease of acceptance and revealed to us, his readers, like a gift.
You can find the book here: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/time-signatures
Yamini Pathak is the author of the chapbook, Atlas of Lost Places (Milk and Cake Press). Her micro-chapbook Breath Fire Water Song is forthcoming in the Ghost City Press Summer 2021 Micro Chapbook Series. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Waxwing, Anomaly, The Kenyon Review blog, Jaggery, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor for the Inch chapbook series published by Bull City Press and an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Yamini is an alumnus of VONA/Voices (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) and Community of Writers.