Isles of Firm Ground
Isles of Firm Ground by Ignacio Ruiz-Pérez delivers its observations about the world from a remove, via an omniscient narrator whose perspective is marked by both awe and melancholy. With ekphrastic poems inspired by John Singer Sargent and classic still-life paintings, and biblical allusions (“may whoever is free of shadow hurl the first stone”), Ruiz-Pérez challenges our perceptions of reality. Mike Soto’s translation from the Spanish captures these striking ideas in deceptively elegant turns of phrase, as when we learn of deer that “fled the fire” while the speaker’s “lips pronounced only the myrrh of its passing.”
Fire runs through this collection, a recurrent motif in poems as diverse as “Orpheus Abandons Hell,” with its fear of “burning in dead waters living flames,” and “Heliotrope,” in which we learn about the flower whose “true vocation […] is fire”:
the tongues of its calyx desecrate space while the swelter leaps over the cliff and larch resin—flame that burns without harming—making dazzled wasps and wisps of clouds pause. […] the flowers are after all a blast from an arquebus
Ruiz-Pérez also turns his attention in this collection to the act of seeing, noting how the “eye defines the edge and the image / bursts its body in the thicket of the iris.” But the image is nothing without words to describe it, and words hold the power to conjure in “Edgar Allan Poe dying at Washington College Hospital,” where the speaker insists, in an aside, “(If I say these words / it’s to see the boats returning / to the shade of a tree.)” “Orpheus Revisited” takes us further still, offering a visual representation of memory, and how it can slip and evade capture:
only when I avert my gaze
do my thoughts ignite
and I see again the buildings, the walls
and the gardens of the burning city.
Gardens abound in this collection, and we observe “plants that climb and suffocate the moon” and “the pale light of the hills, / the magnolias, the thistles of the garden.” “Greenhouse” presents a botanical catalogue of prose poems devoted to flowers like the water lily and heliconia, with a kind of lyricism that seems to hum just beyond our material world.