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The Long Way Home
Leonard Gontarek
Buffalo, NY: Blazevox [Books] 
May 2021
469 pages, $26.00
Review by Randall Potts/
Refusing Closure: The Long Way Home by Leonard Gontarek
Leonard Gontarek’s expansive eighth collection, The Long Way Home, carries the reader from Whitmanesque exultations, and admonitions to a struggle for meaning in everyday consciousness and poetry. These are dynamic poems that often question the poet, the reader and the poem itself. The form of the lyric poem is reimagined: ordered and disordered, filled with juxtapositions of syntax and voicing, gorgeous images and hard-won truths.
The book opens with “Perfume,” a three-part poem that is an evocation and a snapshot of Gontarek’s artistry. Part one begins, “Give me two college kids discussing / Camus and suicide in the self-checkout line…” and concludes, “Give me the self absentmindedly snapping an access card.” Part two is a quotation from Shunryu Suzuki, a Soto Zen monk who helped bring Zen teachings to the United States:
We should rather be grateful for weeds
eventually they will enrich us.
Even under the heavy snow;
we see snowdrops and new growth. 
The quotation is inserted into the poem, evoking gratitude and renewal, essential elements in Gontarek’s book. It also is a radical change in voice, that creates movement and an emotional shift. This juxtaposition is in contrast to the sequential numbering of the poem’s sections, and this structural tension is at play in most of the poems in the book. In the final section, the speaker creates a mix of aphorism and memory.
I do not weep for the way of the world,
I inhale its perfume.
I smother my face in the robe of a woman
who has left me for good.
The poem does not proceed sequentially, but rather accrues meaning as it moves from one kind of diction, voicing, and subject matter to another; relationships are implied and yet resolve concise gestures. This kind of intuitive structure is a distinctive feature of the book. The poems, like moments of consciousness, oscillate between desire, gratitude and a resignation that resists grief. 
In “Robe,” praise is a chant that powers the poem forward into self-revelation. As Gontarek said in an interview, “repetition is a spell” and by the end of the poem, the speaker is spellbound. The poem has seven numbered sections and begins with a litany:
I praise the cats seeping under cars, scrawny in autumn branches.
I praise the light falling slatted on the cat.
I praise the melancholy color of lake. I praise allergy to flowers & beauty.
I praise 5 birds unraveling across water, line of trees. 
I praise deer disappeared.
I praise what we miss is our cats.
The litany is inclusive and unpredictable. In the next three sections, the form slowly fragments and dissipates and in section 5, the speaker remarks, “For, further, there are shapes like humans. / Come here I have a robe for you & a lantern, for the world is cold.” The speaker declares:
For I believe I am trapped in my life as in a painting.
I refuse the pear, even though I am starving.
I believe I fell in love with the angel in the painting.
I believed I could be her wind, her light.
All the lines are end-stopped, which increases the fragmentary, timeless quality of the poem. Again, the poem proceeds intuitively, yet has a very discernable linguistic construction. It concludes with the speaker falling for an angel in his own simile of a painting that stands for his life. He longs to be an abstraction like “wind” or “light” in that painting. The slippage from praise to dismay is organic and unforced.
In addition to the praise poems, there is another set of litanies that use “Let” as the repeated word. The difference between praising and letting is the difference between blessing and desire. Again, the poetic incantation, like a spell, holds each moment still for an instant.
In the middle of the book, the poems turn inward as the speaker investigates meaning and consciousness. However, certain images—varieties of light, trees, cats, seasons, birds, clouds—continue; additionally certain lines, phrases and even sections from poems earlier in the book are repeated and function much like memory. They also provoke memory in the reader by way of participation in them. 
“Japanese Maple” is a perfect example of Gontarek combining disparate elements to create a poem that feels complete and meaningful without draining the life out of it. He uses repetition, numbering, voicing and the restless mind of the speaker to render consciousness. The poem is in three parts, each part shorter than the last, making the poem feel like a progression or distillation. It begins lyrically:
This is my life.
It is warm again 
and smells like rain.
There is the sound of the washer
next door.
The cats are hidden away 
Someone laughs at something 
lovely, hourly.
The petals come and go.
The life of the speaker seems idyllic, with sensation, smell and sound. The cat’s ominous hiding is followed by someone laughing at “something / lovely, hourly.” The speaker is resigned to the petal’s beauty coming and going. A crow appears, who acts as a signal of shifts of diction and form throughout the poem:
The crow lands
on children laughing
and light spreads over them.
I want to give you a picture
of things.
How I want to be a
nicely dressed, crazy person.
How we are condemned to
smoke outside our poems.
The crow with “light…over them,” changes to “a picture of things” as we are condemned to “smoke outside” of the abstraction of our own poems. A statement that’s immediately nullified by being said. Things are getting strange. Then three stanzas later, crow appears again:
At the same time,
crow lands on flowering
and shiny rust leaves
of Japanese maple.
Crow is distinct, black against “shiny rust leaves.” This image is repeated from the poem “Coast.” Next, white space creates distance and time; the poem’s form shifts to a short litany.  As the speaker thinks about poetry, pictures, and even his own reflection, it all collapses into disbelief:
I thought poetry had gone to hell.
I thought there were no after pictures.
I thought there was no factory suicide net.
I don’t believe I’m in the rear window.
I don’t believe I’m a writer in a comfortable house
next door to hyper-realism.
I don’t believe the fires from the capital we can see by.
The speaker tries to create an exclusivity of the “hidden and the divine,” that “sport freely.” Yet, ambiguously, he either admits he misunderstands that thinking about childhood “by the stream as a man,” doesn’t matter, or he dismisses it as obvious:
I thought we would close ranks.
I thought we, the hidden and the divine,
would sport freely in the moonlight.
I thought it did not matter
that he was thinking of his childhood,
if he was standing by the stream as a man.
Crow reappears, only to disappear into a coffin in a grave. And this disappearance effectively releases admiration and lyricism in the speaker:
I admire the large clouds.
Nightfall is moistened.
Birds overhear the heart.
Birds weaken the heart.
The Japanese maple in flames.
Cirrocumulus is mentioned.
Crow has learned the word for fire.
However, Crow is not dead, he reappears again, now more dangerous because he has “learned the word for fire.” The ominous return of the crow shifts the speaker out of his lyrical mood. Section two begins with a meditation on death, “After a death, / we love with our broken hearts.” 
This prompts the speaker to wonder how relation creates meaning. He removes the enjambment of “We / …each other” by placing them both in the same line. He also pokes fun at himself, “wearing gossamer wings” and dreaming of “saving things.”
It doesn’t matter if we
don’t understand each
other’s writings as long
as we understand each other.
The thing is
I was wearing gossamer 
wings and dreamed about
saving things 
Yet it feels unfinished, until a quotation enters the poem:
The thing is Art is art,
Ad Reinhart says,
everything else is
everything else.
Crow has forgotten his password.
The quotation could be the rubric the speaker is trying to find. This gift, separating art and life, is likened to crow forgetting his password. The syllogism of “everything else” could mean art is abstract is like a password. Or the speaker may not agree with Reinhart and the password is sarcastic. Crow’s reappearance also prompts a burst of broken litanies:
I am new. I am new here.
I still have a new car smell.
I praise that we love
with all of our broken hearts.
I praise the birds singing,
that there is something we don’t know,
I praise houses sinking, falling down.
Crow is a lamp.
I pull on the chain, if it lets me.
The speaker praises that “we love / with all our broken hearts” and that there is “something we don’t know.” The second part of the poem ends with an invocation of the crow, who could possibly be a guiding light for the speaker, if he chose to be. The third section circles back to absence and possibly death; memory and love, rather than praise.
When someone is far away,
we love the distance
in their absence, as deeply
as the person. 
We love the lakes and
mountains and maps
between us. We begin to
love the time, the years
with their filaments of nostalgia,
caffeine laced in our soft drinks.
As a tribute to this love, and without
knowing it, we love everyone in this way.
The loss of “someone” is poignant and universal. Here, it leads to ever more distant compensations: lakes, maps, nostalgia and even caffeine.  As a “tribute to this love,” we give up love. This leaves the speaker with only memory and nature to suffice for love.
The way I remember you
is how I remember the past,
in the simplest details.
A pond coated with dusk,
small green hills, no sound
except birds and insects.
I think of you reading,
in a fresh robe, a beer,
scent of flowers
I do not know the name of.
We have come full circle, ending with the lyricism and acceptance the poem began with. Perhaps not knowing the name for a flower only its perfume is a fitting metaphor for our problematic existence. 
The second part of the book, titled “Samurai Ghost Looking For His Head In A Cemetery” has nine short poems (none with numbered divisions). In an interview, Gontarek described this part as “a small book,” remarking, “clearly there’s politics in this section.” The title is appropriate: if a Samurai is beheaded instead of being left to commit ritual“seppuku” (self-disembowelment), he is dishonored. In the nine poems that follow, there is a pervading sense of being dishonored, and America is described as a kind cemetery.
In “War On The Natural World,” Miss America relays the latest bad news about the “new leader” by phone; “Her voice on the phone // breaking up like a flock of birds / and reforming.” A dualism occurs between the news, and the natural world that the speaker seeks out for solace. “Playing The Long Game” ends with an appeal to nature:
Let us think, for a moment, about summer.
How dawn is like a peach skin
and takes you in like acapella.
The light falls from the moon
like toy guns. Don’t ask me how,
it just does.”
The appeal to nature ends with a false simile of moonlight falling like “toy guns” and the admonition, “Don’t ask me how, / it just does.” The rapturous summer dawn becomes a moon, and nature is displaced by toy guns.
“Why Putin Hacked The Election” is an extended metaphor of nature in the midst of a false spring. “Impoverished souls, / we went back to living our lives of winter. / The birds sang, less with elan, / ramped-up on ennui.” The poem concludes: “It [is] as though the natural world were saying, / No matter what, we can enter your house / and do what we want.” The false spring now includes both Putin’s fascistic election meddling and the global crisis of climate change.
Understandably, the problem of internalizing political chaos and violence plagues the speaker. In “National Security” the speaker listens to Huang Po, a Chinese Zen master from the Tang dynasty, who asks him, “Why all this talk of seeing / into your own nature?” Notably, Huang Po was famous for saying, “The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking.” The speaker tries to follow this advice, “The humming is outside / and inside myself // I am buzzing streetlights, / Striped bulbs spinning rapidly underground.” But the speaker cannot rid himself of duality and admits: 
I keep talking and talking
so there is something
while the leader is
forbidding one more thing,
his pen dipped in baby blood.
In “Republic of Ridiculous,” nature is again appealed to, but is compromised. The “trees are classical / in the slightly furred green light,” yet the wind “is sick and / ridiculous.” There is no escape: “The President sits in a bulletproof / car and says his principles / are bulletproof.” 
“Two American Scenes” presents a divided America, where misunderstandings are commonplace and respect is nowhere to be found. In “Diner,” a waitress mistakes the sobriquet “honey” for actual honey. In “American Sketch,” heartbreakingly, “We have grave markers that honor our pets and parents. / People take them away and we replace them.” 
Exhausted by the toxic political state of our country, the speaker desperately seeks solace in the final poem “Anthem.” Nature is dissolving: “The light of the moon is a ghost / climbing out of a grave. The tulips are too soon.” The country is described succinctly, “Here is the stone. Here is the knife.” Even the companionable cat, now “cleans himself in front of a church door.” In a last, desperate appeal, the speaker transcends the “used-car lot” for “The field flooded with moonlight beyond it.” He cries out to the moonlight: “Soothe me, soothe me, baby.” 
Gontarek is a rare poet who can write complex poems and still be accessible. His poems disarm us, and it’s surprisingly pleasurable. As he proceeds, elements that felt random become meaningful. Gontarek’s keen ear for musicality, voicing, and diction—as well as the immediacy of his imagery—engages us and propels his book. In The Long Way Home, his subject is epic: how can consciousness be depicted and how can poetry make us more humane. Gontarek’s book couldn’t be more timely or more necessary.
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