Title: Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart
Author: M. Kei, ed.
Price: $14.95, paperback
Point of Sale: Lulu
There's some delightful reading in Fire Pearls, but the work as a whole gets in its own way: it actually impedes the reader's ability to appreciate the poetry within. It contains several distractions that made it difficult for me to read the poems impartially - which is a shame, because there are some enjoyable and moving poems throughout the book. It's difficult enough when the book is a collection of short love poems; love is a difficult subject to address without appearing clichéd or formulaic.
The subtitle, Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart, bemused me. When the artist or impresario labels his or her own work as a masterpiece, I'm automatically skeptical. That, to me, is the audience's decision.
The preface opens: "The book you hold in your hands is an unusual one and bound to become a collector's item." This first sentence compounded the antagonism from the subtitle, and it narrowed my eyes further. When I opened this book, I'd been looking forward to an intimate experience, as reading poetry should be. Instead, I felt as though I was being treated as a prospect, not an audience. At that point, I felt deceived -- having been drawn in for art, but finding myself in what felt like a sales presentation. I had to remind myself that the preface is not the book, and that I'm here to enjoy the poems; a reader should never have to make a conscious effort to be moved by a book.
Fire Pearls is a beautiful title, and it is eminently apt for a collection of short poems. It's compact and evocative. I wondered, though only briefly, that the book and section titles bear no relation to one another. The book is divided into five sections: four seasons, "reflecting the importance of nature and nature imagery in tanka poetry", plus a fifth for poems that refuse categorisation because, as the preface notes, "the human heart refuses to live and love in an orderly fashion". The section names bear no relation to the title, which is a slight distraction.
A further distraction is that differences between the sections are difficult to discern; if there is a change from one section to another, the reader will logically expect the next section to demonstrate some different characteristics from the others. I didn't find the differences to be clear, though the organisation is explained in the preface. The poems are categorised based on imagery used in the poems, not on subject matter. I found myself wondering occasionally why a poem was, say, in the Autumn section and not the Summer section. It would have been easier for me to assimilate the sections if they had been grouped by chronology (of the life of a love), type of love (e.g. romantic, brotherly, agape), or even form (tanka, cinquain, etc.). This aspect, of course, does not reflect on the quality of the poems, but it does cause the reader to wonder.
The preface advises the reader that the poems contained are of various five-line forms: "tanka, kyoka, cinquains, free verse, and more". It is not clear, however, how the reader will recognise these forms, which I found frustrating. Identifying the forms, or indicating which poems are which, would have made the reading more satisfying.
But, most importantly, are the poems worth reading? Do they move the reader?
Overall, my answer is a qualified 'yes'. I found a number of the poems to be beautiful and moving; the poets have addressed in a variety of ways a range of emotions and issues that all relate to love. Again, no one will thrill to every poem in any collection, especially if there is any variety to it. And there is sufficient variety to this collection, within the bounds of its stated focus, for readers to find their favorites.
Some poems used a standard device which I don't favour: naming an object in the first line or two, and describing a scene or event afterward. A random haiku, as an example only:
Plums in a basket:
Three generations sit silent
Dad carves the turkey
Though it may be traditional, I think this structure is a facile approach to conjuring a reaction -- creating an oblique juxtaposition of image, then leaving the reader to puzzle out some connection. It's a formula that's easy to apply, but more difficult to apply successfully.
I did feel that some of the poems seemed to parallel or correspond to each other, as though they'd been the result of a class assignment. That feeling may have been the result of reading the poems in blocks; I'm certain that a book such as this one is not meant to be read straight through, but picked up and leafed through from time to time.
I imagine, by way of analogy, a tourist spending three weeks touring the cathedrals of Italy. Unless cathedrals are his particular interest, by day fifteen, he's just plodding through wondrous apses, watching more for cafes than ageless devotional art.
I enjoyed reading Fire Pearls, and I'm glad I did; it just shouldn't have been so hard to do.
Reviewed by: Rob McCreery. Rob McCreery writes poems and moderates the poetry forum at Absolute Write.