Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy – Translated by John Taylor

Tràs-os-Montes by Josè-Flore Tappy, Translated by John Taylor

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By Michael Collins
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A bit past midway through Josè-Flore Tappy’s Tràs-os-Montes, we find a short poem that, as well as any, incapsulates the psychospiritual essence of this book-length sequence:
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Between night and day
a narrow strip of land
where the blind body gropes forward,
trying to keep its balance, standing,
before opening its eyes (111)
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The poem, read as the book’s kernel of self, portrays the individual core of the psyche the operates in many of the others in the book through symbiotic observation of and participation in human activity and the natural world, as if “opening its eyes” were first and most deeply understood as a gesture of community. The greater collection arcs between the speaker’s loss of a beloved and several processes that foster life’s continuation in the aftermath; however, at each point we find ourselves balanced carefully between a sense of necessary grounding and continual rediscoveries of the world, the speaker’s affirmative presence within it, and its deepening being within her reverent observations and the reverberating nuances.
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Many of the earlier poems focus on Maria, a woman who works at the speaker’s lodging in remote Portugal, for which the collection is named. In some places in these poems the speaker draws comfort from the unsentimental, somewhat spartan daily routines: “peace has no face, / has four wooden feet / and customary gestures” (33). Others indicate echoes of her own ongoing work of mourning and reorientation reflected in Maria’s activities and demeanor, as here while she is sorting berries:
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She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips
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behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains (37)
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The parallels between Maria’s work of surviving the elements and the speaker’s of surviving loss extend to connections between inherited habits and memories shared with the beloved:
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How to sleep, though,
without returning once more
to the vegetable patch again as if
going back in time, to make sure
everything has been left behind
according to the rules,
and made ready, before the storm
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what remains behind
sometimes the only chance
for tomorrow (41)
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Through this process in portraiture, in which the quiet wisdom and dignity Maria embodies slowly come forth and deepen, the speaker develops an appreciative affinity in metaphor, a transitional bond that helps to facilitate reacclimating to the world through writing poems:
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Thin as a handkerchief
my page I scrub and clean
down to the darkness that destroys it
and is stronger than words
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while she awakens early, like a nail
boring into the cold, braving it,
moving forward,
all her thoughts gathered
into a silent point,
a single point that hurts (49)
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The speaker moves from this psychological symbiosis of the book’s opening to poems that venture out to explore the surrounding worlds. Here, too, there are subtle moments of metaphorical interplay between the literal scenes and physical endeavors and the deeper psychological movements that take place unconsciously in tandem, until they release moments of cathartic imagery rendered, as in this piece, in a seemingly impossible tension between tender and apocalyptic:
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Against fear we will set
the vigorous trail never weary
of guiding us, or of following us,
the stubborn waves that sweep away
the driftwood, their ebb and flow,
and that fragile moment when the lilac-colored sky
shatters like eggshell pressed by a finger,
opening the way to the blank hour,
when between us the cement wall
crumbles, when the sandstone cliff
vanishes, between pink carnations
and asphodels (127)
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In these travels, as well, the speaker’s deeply felt confluence of grace and interdependence inform a perspective that confers a transpersonal importance and dignity upon the people and places the poems render:
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Whoever lends his ear
long will hear the balls rolling
over the felt tables
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they strike with a light flow
what is opaque in us and rises
with sleep,
clicking mutely
on that hazy door
and keeping us alive (131)
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Whether as a result of this sacramental perspective into the quotidian, or simply as another experience of its practice, the speaker’s dedication to bearing witness to the transcendent life facilitates a return of the essence of the beloved:
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Better this faulty lamp
way back in the land than sham
comforts of brighter lights.
In this place without an origin,
remote from the living,
I find you again at last,
make you out (167)
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It remains an open question whether the speaker arrives at this felt presence of the lost beloved by seeing through to the spirit of so many images over the course of the journey – or whether this presence of the beloved, or of something that bonded the two, has been guiding these visions all along, an unconscious or spiritual guidance inverse to but allied with that of Maria’s practical, daily faithfulness.  Such questions make this work compelling for both its intertwined explorations of spiritual and psychological mystery and it modeling of an artistic practice of survival against erasure that offers back to others and the world that known grace that makes it possible for the poet.
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You can find the book here: Trás-Os-Montes: Poems

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Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.

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