Review: Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia, by Leonard Neufeldt

Leonard Neufeldt, Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia, (Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2015). Paperback, 90 pages, $14.95.

Leonard Neufeldt’s seventh book of poetry is a vast collection that weaves together different voices of history. These poems ruminate on how history impacts both our everyday lives and our futures, and the collection as a whole meditates on memory and mortality, travel and home, on life beyond what we know, and on the day-to-day weight of the past. Set in a number of places around the world, Neufeldt takes the reader along on his travels as he ponders what it means to remember the past, what the past means to the present, and how to find stability within yourself in a changing and complicated world.

Structured in three unified parts, Neufeldt begins the first section, “Portraits in Different Voices,” by cleverly juxtaposing the past with the present by focusing on select historical figures. In this first section we find portraits of Plato, Nietzsche, Frida Kahlo, and Lenin (to name a few). In the poem “Baton with Tip Missing,” the Maestro Leonard Bernstein, known for his music for West Side Story and Candide, “is teaching the dead to perform. / Being gone from the past is not to be freed of it, ….” This idea that even in death Maestro Bernstein is still conducting orchestras in the afterlife plays with the idea that history is always with us. Our history will follow us around forever.

The titular section is set in present-day Turkey, where voices from the past collide with the sights, smells, and action of the present. Neufeldt’s Anatolia comes alive. You can feel the intense heat, smell the spices and perfumes, and hear the Tigris River lapping in a cave. Setting the biggest chunk of poems within such a rich and deeply historical landscape brings the importance of history (the history of a place, or of a human’s life) into sharp focus. The poem “Archaeology in Knidos, 1991” explores the idea that the only things we can take from the past are stories in its description of a trip through ancient ruins and the stories that emanate out of the rubble. As the journey continues, a travelling partner discovers an old coin and pockets it. This attempt at pocketing history, taking something tangible from the past, leads to interesting reflections on how we carry the past into the present. The captain of the trip, trying to safeguard the physical space, asks that “we turn our pockets out to prove / we’ve gotten nothing from this morning’s visit / except his story, ….”

How reliable are these stories? How do these stories influence the present? What does it mean to visit sacred, ancient places and tread on history with our present-day feet? This theme continues in the poem “Midday Meal at the Tigris River,” stating that “like the Tigris, broad and full as the infinite / it gathers from all the claims upon it, / words added without end.” History is a layered story. We travel the world and put our own personal history on places that have already seen so much. We add to history by simply being.

The final section, “Think of This Earth, My Love,” takes the reader to the poet’s home province, British Columbia. In contrast with the ever-present heat of Turkey, these poems begin with winter in British Columbia and then move into spring. Where Turkey was vibrant and fully alive, the poet turns his attention to the starkness of winter and the promise of new life with spring. In the poem “Spring Song, March” Neufeldt writes that “winter’s wreckage of leaves / ridged along the large patch / of rock daphne bursting out first / blossoms of immodest pink, / and everywhere between the trees / and rock ledge spears pushing / their secrets up like memory’s / pale surprise of green.” Just as blossoms emerge out of winter, new life and new stories emerge out of the past. Our memories of the past spring forward to create new memories in the present.

Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia is a beautiful collection of poetry that focuses deeply on the important role that the past plays in our present and our future. It shows the reader that travelling the world can teach you many things, but the simplest and most comforting truths lie in the spaces we each call home.
Krista Wiebe is a freelance editor and writer based in Calgary.