The Lost Country of Sight by Neil Aitken
(Anhinga Press, Tallahassee, FL., 2009)
Neil Aitken, founding editor of The Boxcar Poetry Review, loses it all in his poetry collection, The Lost Country of Sight. Countries, a father, language, and the narrator himself all recede into a liminal grey space. Aitken’s narrator declares himself “a ghost among the living,” and throughout the four sections of the book, there is nothing much for a reader to grasp at but ghosts, air, and ashes upon the shore. The poems are in fact defined not by the customary search for home or the characterization of that site but by the very absence of home as a concrete location. Aitken writes, “In me, there are as many countries as names.”
The poems in The Lost Country of Sight whisk a reader from airport to seashore and from Taiwan to Vancouver, British Columbia. Yet, everywhere he takes us, Aitken shows us much the same sights. The characters that we encounter are all “sleeping women,” “ghosts,” and those figures like the man who is described as a “castoff map.” Nevertheless, there is some method to the madness. In the first section, Aitken floats us over Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then, in the second section, we land long enough to experience the death of a father. From there, it’s off to Los Angeles and Vancouver in section three, and finally, in section four we’re back to the current and floating toward no particular destination other than our own inward reflection along with the poet himself. Here we are left with “grey upon grey,/ smog upon cloud, no memory of stars” as the narrator finally reaches the shore, his father’s ashes in hand. What is beyond is left to the imagination.
The best poems can be found in section two of the collection. Here, the reader begins to learn what is at stake for the writer and perhaps to discern some intention for the grey upon grey of the text. The influence of Asian poets is evinced in the subject matter but also in the poet’s presentation of nature and image. There is gentleness in manner not unlike the haikus of Bashō in lines such as “Even the bamboo has forgotten the napalm at last,” which is found in the poem entitled “All the Names of Children and Homes We May Never Know.”
Other critics have also noted that Aitken’s father poems are reminiscent of Li-Young Lee’s careful and beautiful lines. In fact, Aitken himself writes on his blog: “Many of my favorite poems revolve around the father. The father as foil. As counterpart. As template. As warning. As authority. As loss. Fathers are often fixed points, what we measure ourselves against, the poles to which we find ourselves tethered to and which we strain to break free. Sometimes the father is an anchor. Sometimes the father is a mirage. A ghost. A myth we tell ourselves. The father is many things at once. For me, often my father was home.” If Aitken’s father was home much as Lee’s often seems to be, then it is a much different version of that place as shown in the poem “Burials”:
Pulling through Montana in the snow
we cling to the tail lights of the last car
blurring back into the darkness.
"Like the inside of a coffin," my father says,
as if knowing the exact shade the dead see,
lying stiff, frozen eyes peering up through closed lids—
he shifts in his seat, watches the road disappear,
thinks again of dying and the burials we've seen,
his father's simple reduction to ashes.
How small the urn, how light, for a man
that stood 6'3", carried a boy on his shoulders,
lived on trains as a youth, picked apples as a man.
This past summer, watching him thin
to disappearing, blurring out lines between lives,
my father trying to return pieces, fragments, time,
the body burning, the dark smells of crematoriums,
funeral homes, and pale faced lawyers.
Something merges, ends, and begins.
My father placing the ashes back into the air,
offerings to the skies, to the seas,
unaware how Buddhist he is at this moment,
how the faint sound of bagpipes echoes,
how the ashes fall catching light,
reflecting something back into the silence,
the dark birth of the sun coming into view.
Where Li-Young Lee sees the beauty of the “Chinese apple” in “Persimmons,” Aitken finds only these “dark smells,” “funeral homes,” “and pale faced lawyers.” In this section there is no real rebirth as might be expected, but there is a reveling in a dreamlike state. There is even a poem entitled “Elegy for Grey,” which seems to acknowledge the poet’s awareness of each section’s insistence and reiteration of a colorless world. It’s surreal, and perhaps that’s the poet’s purpose, to rarely see the father in life in this section. He is depicted in dreams and bit by bit. He is visions and memories, but nothing to be sure of.
Upon finishing The Lost Country of Sight, one might wonder something relatively simple: what’s all the sadness for? Sure, there’s a loss of place and the loss of the father, but is there really nothing solid of life to grasp? Nature? Memory? Beauty? Language? But the poet is resolute. In this world, there is only grey. In some ways, it feels like each section of the collection should be its own book. Hobbled together, the sections move us along with the tide, but they never let us come up for air.
What a reader is ultimately left with is the efficacy of the lie. The poems are all about being ghostlike, and yet the narrator is quite concretely, everywhere. Aitken says that “forgetting is in the blood,” but truthfully, the existence of the poems proves he can’t forget. And how can we believe that he has found “a certain place,/ a place outside of language,” when he is after all, a poet?
Amanda Reynolds received an MFA in poetry from the University of Florida and a PhD in poetry from Florida State University. She currently lives in and writes poetry about Pittsburgh, PA and teaches at Slippery Rock University. She has recently published work in journals such as Gargoyle, Mississippi Crow, and Gander Mountain Review.