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Review of “Sharawadji” by Brian Henderson (Brick Books 2011)

Brian Henderson and I have been friends since the 1960s, so in a way I have both a unique advantage as well as disadvantage when it comes to his poetry. But I have to say that with each of his ten books of poetry, he has always surprised me in ways I couldn’t have imagined or anticipated. From Paracelcus to The Alphamiricon, from The Expanding Room to Year Zero to The Viridical Book of the Silent Planet, he has consistently searched out new boundaries, combining an uncommon sense of innovation and invention with a surgeon’s or anatomist’s love of language.

In Henderson’s last book, Nerve Language, which also was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, he writes:

It occurs to me that I myself / am the writing-down-system / that wants to capture everything. . . the endless / limitation of words I am writing / on the other side of writing. (“The Writing-Down-System”)

His writing reaches out for what happens after writing, after reading . . . to an other-world, or the other side of writing to discover what he describes as “the landscape below landscape, the breath below the breath, time beneath time”.

It would appear that the word sharawadji is a corruption of the Japanese, filtered through Dutch, probably misheard by the C17 visitors to the Japanese gardens at Kyoto. It is both a word and a simulacrum of itself, a representation of representation whose parts are at once haphazard, irregular, disordered, and asymmetrical in structure, but also graceful and agreeable, revealing new forms of life beyond the disorder.

With Sharawadji the book, we arrive in a kind of perfect array of divergence, a series of conversations, narratives, word-paintings and memories that bridge the gaps between past and future. The visual and aural relationship between the parts and the whole is ingeniously uncovered as the presentation of one medium trying to realize itself through another.

There’s no doubt that “Twelve Imaginary Landscapes” and “Previews”, the opening and closing sections of the book, are at once the most difficult and intellectually the most rewarding; like the book’s title, they are not for the faint of heart. Their compact, dense format, as well as the word-stacking through these short narratives push at the boundaries of landscape and time. They are inspired by paintings that quickly become the skins we dive beneath, finding layers of cell and history, memory and DNA.

Those sometimes complicated, exotic words he plants like huge linguistic boulders in the middle of phrases are impossible to quickly walk around, verbally or intellectually, and nicely push against the “flow” of the poems.

The section “Night Music” comes as something of a relief to the reader. The poems have a kind of exquisite longing from which it’s hard to separate oneself, an intimacy of feeling compared to the sharp scalpel of “Landscapes”. The water and garden imagery, the flying birds and clouds sing throughout, but more than anything we can feel the presence of his mother, Ruth, helping even in death shake off the sense of anger/loss/pain and replacing it with a calmness and serenity. These are the known unknowns that we capture only momentarily, and always seem to be in the middle of.

Sharawadji is a brilliant achievement, tirelessly inventive, and a pleasure to read.

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