Thursday, May 14, 2015

“Thru the Windows and the Blinds”: A Review of Ed Baker’s Neighbor

 (1998/2015; Moria Press; paperback:; free ebook:

Some poets write in a minimalist, Eastern style that reads like a sutra or a prayer, as opposed to the at-times very dense poetry of Western writers. Poets writing in the former style give the reader ample space in which to graft their interpretations and morph their experiences with the work, allowing their poems to operate like myths, folk tales, and fairytales.

It was five years ago that I first reviewed Ed Baker’s work, when I received for the purpose his Restoration Letters (1972–1978)—co-authored with Cid Corman—and his solo book, Restoration Poems (1972–2007). I had been a fan of his writing and goddess illustrations for years prior, and since publishing that review, we have kept in touch through email.

Neighbor unfolds like a classic mystery (at least to this reader, who has recent experience writing in the genre) without a murder; a noir-ish exploration of the complicated relationship of the narrator and the troubled woman who lives next door to a house in which the narrator seems to be doing renovations.
The book is broken into five sections (Arousal, Calling Her, Shades, Fu:sion, and Intersections), the poetry interlaced with some of Baker’s line sketches, reminiscent of his well-known goddess drawings.
Neighbor quickly places the reader in the role of voyeur, much like watching a play in a darkened theatre, where the “fourth” wall has been removed and your participation in what unfolds is implicit rather than explicit.

With his ladder propped against a wall, the narrator let’s us look, vicariously, through a window. There is a letter slipped under a kitchen door.
“a woman waiting/invitations
getting to know her”

She tells him: “My father molested me when I was young”; the narrator later confirms she was “gone into by her father.” She is troubled, self-sexualized, and perhaps unstable.
Their “relationship” is consummated fairly quickly, the narrator describing her sexual appetites, capabilities, and her body with an initial reverence reminiscent of the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen:
“eaten her ripe fig from
tree of heaven between
her there      and me ...”

But over time, the metaphorical reverence melts away, and we are left with the bluntness of
Time passes, and my read is that the narrator is doing odd jobs for the neighbor. There is wiring and ladders, and continuous imagery of her garden, which she tends, while he works. Their relationship continues its dynamic tension, power constantly shifting, with the narrator professing:
“deliberately/I had kept/my/distance”
even as he tries to “get a better/view/across the way/for days shades/up/blinds open”
“the shade was up”
In both the poems and the illustrations (a series of abstract line drawings of the female shape, open and impressionistic) the window and its shades and blinds are prevalent. Both passageways and a code, these are the mechanisms of memory, as one is titled: “A Man Contemplates Sketch Pinned to Wall.”
In the sub-section “Calling Her” the voyeurism increases: “her shadow-dance/behind the drawn/shade”
Or later in the book, in a poem called “The Eyes”:
Throughout the book there is admonition by the narrator that the poems and drawings are most important; the imagination more real than the “reality” of the trysts:
“as this run of poems the
book is become yet to be

“it was never her/mound that he had/wanted  it was/
on a poem that/his words had made”

“he had drawn her/like she had/drawn him”

But the poetry then seems to work upon her, drawing her in (or out):

“…one line/sentence/gets/her/outside…
tinted windows/all around auto”

Although, as we see, even the windows of her car have the potential to hide her secrets.


“the shade/came down/abruptly/the window too/it was that final/these poems are/what/is/left/of the relationship”

Within the dynamic tension, there is at times overlap with the structural and sexual:
“back doorwide invitation to
enter her”

And Kafka-esque perceptual transformation, as he likens her to a mantis that


As the book proceeds, the illustrations begin to change. Just before the section entitled “Fu:sion” there are two portraits that might be of the author/narrator. In the 1999 drawings, the female subject looks skeletal and monstrous.

By this stage in their voyeuristic dance, it is clear just how much she enjoys the game:

“her habit was/to watch him/watching her”

In the final section, “Intersections,” the narrator more fully articulates the somewhat selfish nature of the relationship:

“he had had his own ex-/pectations of woman/in the window”

and in the next to last poem:

“it/had/never/been/her/sex/that he was after”

In its movement from voyeurism, to passionate sex, to the roller-coaster of rejection and reunion, to the admonition that it was all about the art, Neighbor takes us on a journey full of shadow and mystery, leading the reader to the harder questions about why we do what we do, both as people and through our expression of our experiences as art.

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