The Outskirts of Karma
by Alfred Encarnacion
Illustrations by Hong Xia
Aquinas & Krone Publishing, LLC, 2012
Paperback, 58 pp.
Review by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael
The word “mature,” when used to describe an artist’s work or a writer’s voice, tends toward positive connotations. Critics incline toward praise when a writer’s youthful exuberance and riskiness matures into noteworthy ground-breaking territory, or when a poet’s early promise, if a bit callow, ripens into spirituality, wisdom, or keen and unsparing observation. I mention this aspect of the artist’s growth because I first encountered Alfred Encarnacion’s poetry when both of us were young. Full disclosure: the micro-press I co-published with the late David Dunn issued Mr. Encarnacion’s early chapbook collection, At Winter’s End. We lost touch for about 30 years. I didn’t even know he was still writing poetry. And now, through the digital network and the circuitous mysteries of friend networking, Alfred Encarnacion’s book The Outskirts of Karma has re-introduced me to his work; more accurately, the book has introduced me to the mature poetry of this talented writer.
In keeping with the collection’s title, Encarnacion employs images of the natural world throughout and keeps the tone of this collection fairly steadily in the “now” of Asian-influenced philosophy. Allusions to Eastern poets, art, and approach appear effortlessly and crop up appropriately. The reader doesn’t get the sense that Encarnacion is pasting Eastern ideas together just because he likes Li Po or thinks karma is a cool idea. What these poems do, instead, is to incorporate aspects of ancient wisdom-teaching and demonstrate their relevance to modern life, to the USA or wherever one happens to be: in a cornfield in August or waiting for “Buddha’s call on my cellular phone.” In the opening poem, Encarnacion’s speaker says, “I read the I Ching to be enlightened/but nothing changes; I read it//for pure entertainment & suddenly/it’s prophetic as the TV Guide.” Things do change; in “Winter Light,” another awaited phone call comes: “a nurse’s voice breaks the news” that the speaker’s mother has died, while outside “footprints, clear and stark,//fill again with snow.” The call in each case is partly spiritual, partly place- and time-specific. We can read the call as metaphor or fact, and Encarnacion leaves those options, and opportunities, to the reader.
Many writers reflect on mortality and the brief span of individual human lives, and Encarnacion does not avoid these much-examined tropes and questions about death. In fact, he explores the subject in ways that are sometimes confrontational (“In the Hall of the King of the Terrible Lizards” and “Winter Light” for example) and sometimes much subtler (“Gravity,” Disappearing,” and “After the Summer”). From “In the Hall of the King of the Terrible Lizards”:
What chills the blood
is not the reconstructed
remnants of a reptile
eons dead but a word
buried in the head,
glimmer like swirling
grains of dust. Extinction.
And yet, describing an 18th-c. still-life by Alexandre-Francois Desportes which features a dead hare and bloodied pheasants waiting to be plucked, Encarnacion observes “One feather/falls through centuries…” evoking the lasting and revivifying nature of art. There is also the promise of biology doing its cyclical thing: in “Deserted Village, Endless Mountains,” the narrator tells us:
Whatever’s abandoned the land will reclaim. These silent
dirt streets belong to lichen and ragweed. Stray dogs follow
us shyly, pretending they’re wolves. Under its breath
the wilderness whispers.
From the aphoristic “Sorrows” to wry poems concerning Cafavy or the Famous Diving Horse, Alfred Encarnacion demonstrates his mature poetic voice through a range of subject material that seems personal but not over-telling and which is thematically lyrical almost above all else. A mood of skeptical faith acquired through the process of living a full life offers the reader the chance to reconsider each poem upon re-reading and may be why Philip Terman, and Chris Bursk have mentioned the word “wise” when praising Encarnacion’s work. Hong Xia’s delicate sketches contribute to the total book experience. All but one of the artworks are spare and offer the kind of mental space necessary for meditation and reflection.
Of the departed, “I feel presence/ in their hovering absence;/ a little faith in the imagination,” writes Alfred Encarnacion. These poems aim to keep that faith in imagination vivid and necessary, and they do.