When we are taken from familiar surroundings, we are often left confused, even lost. But there is another aspect to being separated from what is a usual routine, a favorite room in a comfortable house, or even a steady and sound relationship. When we set out on our own, for whatever reason, we must contemplate the meaning of being separate and apart. Often this is a time to reconsider the relationship we have with ourselves. If we are lucky, we have this experience at least once in our lives.
So it was for Seth Jani, a young poet from the Northeast, whose chapbook of poems, Desert Psalms, details the time he spent living and working in the Mojave desert, a place where “there can be no names.” With a reference to the experience of being somewhere new and quite apart from familiarity, Jani describes his way of seeing himself in a fresh way in his poem, “Back To Basics.”
For the first time I will be A prodigy of stone, A sharp, unshaven self Ablaze in the brass horizon, Worshiping rocks And singing the rites To nature’s smallest ceremonies.
There are poems about leaving old loves and hurts behind, and in “Around Again” Jani attempts to speak for us all and our communal sorrows of the last century. In doing so, he appeals to the reader to return to the elemental.
In every hour of every day Let us remember the earth, This great god that shoulders The sun and cradles history in Its hands. Let us remember the slow and silent Siege That flows from moment to moment. And eats us back to dust.
What are psalms if not songs or hymns, exaltations of faith, and sometimes doubt? Psalms reach to the core of experience. They are spiritual in nature, but these days spirituality seems to change from one person to the next. Seth Jani does not profess to understand all the mysteries of God in these poems. Instead, his poems are studies of self and surroundings, landscapes with a traveler who happens to be a poet. These poems are sometimes Whitmanesque in their sense of a common humanity. The descriptions of the desert world have the sensitivity of Gary Snyder. The spiritual depth of the poems reminded me of Thomas Merton.
Jani is young, so it is uncertain which direction his new poems will take. But I imagine that this desert period will never be far from the edge of his thoughts. A desert lasts and lasts, and once we encounter it, we are never the same again. In “Psalm V,” he seems ready to continue the journey into new places, just as we all must.
I lay down with all the world, And together we try to chase That great unknown something As it goes Bounding through the fog.
Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and in Chappell Hill, Texas. His play, MOONBIRDS: A Play in the Desert, was produced in New York City by Personal Space Theatrics.