Michael Fallon, Empire of Leaves: Poems and Photographs by Michael Fallon , Singing Man Press, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, ISBN 978-0578-406381 48 pages $20.00
The Poetry Foundation states that “An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” Michael Fallon’s new book of poems, Empire of Leaves, is a collection of ekphrastic poetry, but with a difference. The pictures that were Fallon’s inspiration were photographs that he took himself as he and his wife walked around the Charles Village, Guilford and Roland Park neighborhoods of Baltimore, and at other locations in Maryland and Virginia, including Loch Raven Reservoir, the Gunpowder State Park, and Assateague Island. His wife, Ruth Leavitt Fallon, an artist in her own right, helped edit and design the book. The result is a complete work of art in every way.
The photographs are more integral to the poems than most ekphrastic inspiration. They function as a context, a line, an embodiment of the words. The words of the poem further the fascination with the image. The interpretation of the poet gives an existential transcendence to the image. The poet’s talent produces not only good poems but some extraordinary ones. Take the first poem, “Dark Maple”, in the book:
Black flame against a white sky,
Primal scream in wood,
Ladder of shadows,
Tower of blood;
The living darkness,
Tendril of vein and artery,
Bones branching into trunk,
Rib and spine,
The brain, a wet ball of roots
Potted in the skull.
Behind the tongue,
The quickening seed;
Hands leafing out
Into the light
The tree is a metaphor for the human body and vice versa. The tree is a sensate being. Here the magic of poetry personifies, sanctifies in an existential sense, what is normally just an object in the human world. The poet identifies with the tree, and with living existence itself. He understand intuitively the “primal scream in wood”, the “ladder of shadows.” The words suggest so much. The reader feels the poem. Anguish? That is part of it but the poem expresses birth. “Hands leafing out/ into the light.” The tree, the human, is born in, from and of the earth. And what a comparison, an identifying with, as in these words—“the brain, a wet ball of roots/ potted in the skull/ behind the tongue/ the quickening seed.” You don’t find such imagination, such expressiveness in much contemporary or traditional poetry.
Fallon’s book of poems is a book of imagination, of connecting all the dots. Even the most mundane of objects, everyday things hardly noticed are imbued with the magic of his metaphors, and are symbols, and gates to the world’s myths. The first six lines of the poem “Iron Tree” are some of the most powerful lines of any poem. Look at the picture that elicited them.
Gate to the underworld,
Everything that falls,
Falls between your branches
Never to return, the past trapped
As the present pours through
In a flood of light.
The poem then connects this reality to Orpheus, …”Plato lost in his cave”, Theseus, Vishnu dreaming the Sun, or waking , “….The Sun gone/ And everywhere/ The senseless night.” The humblest of objects evoke a glimpse of the cosmos, of the human life lived in a mystery, a poem that starts in the known world but quickly peels back the skin to the pulse, the substance, the provisional and creative myths history has provided to comfort or warn us.
The electricity of the book is the flow of words, but the switch is each individual photograph. The reader/viewer is given a unique experience. The poems describe but they are, analogously, like the music that transforms the lyrics of a song. Here the visual is given definition with experiences that language transmits. The visual world is transformed. There is music as well. Language is sound as well as a visual object, as well as an immaterial spark that lights consciousness. Poetry may have started as song in the prehistoric past, may have regimented itself in strict rhythms, rhymes, marched in syllables, and it still retains that property. Prose, the best, also has rhythm, but most of it is flat, drawn out as it snores its reduction of the world to a singular didactic and dogmatic plane. Poetry awakens the human being to the possibilities of existence, the senses, the chains of thought, temporal, rational, and irrational. Fallon’s words have the rhythm of contemporary 21 st century poetry. Here is an example from the opening of “Shadow Lovers”:
At dawn, they will stretch
From beneath buildings,
From under the hills and trees,
Walls and mountains, to darken the valleys,
To lean tall again into the light.
If you read the lines out loud the musical quality is heard at once. The short lines provide rhythm, the ell sounds give liquidity, and the rhymes provide an unobtrusive but natural reverberation: will-building-hills; walls-tall, and the e sound in beneath-trees-valleys-lean. Perhaps this informal music can be compared to the rhythms and play of jazz. It is very contemporary. Yes, it is pedantic to dwell on the mechanics of the sound, but it is part of the poet’s art. Most prose sounds nothing like it. Read a newspaper; read one of Fallon’s poems. The difference is immediately heard.
In summing up, Empire of Leaves is a religious experience, not in the sense of dogmatic belief, but in the sense of being a conscious experience of the subconscious, the archetypal, and, perhaps, the elemental. However, it is not pretentious in the least. Many of the poems could stay with the reader; transform their view of the world around them.
© Michael Fallon and Dan Cuddy
Michael Fallon is a poet and essayist and lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, Ruth. He is Senior Lecturer Emeritus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) where he taught creative writing, literature, and composition for more than thirty-five years. He has been an editor at Puerto del Sol, a founding editor at the Maryland Poetry Review, and President of the Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society. Fallon won fellowships in Poetry from the Maryland State Arts Council in 1988 and 2009. His essays have been published by The New England Review, the Broadstreet Literary Review, The Concho River Review, The Razor, and on Literary Hub: The Best of the Literary Internet, as well as in many other literary journals. Fallon’s poems have appeared in The Antietam Review, The American Scholar, The Oyez Review, The Loch Raven Review, Illuminations and numerous other magazines as well as in anthologies, on CDs, and have been broadcast on Public Radio. He is the author of four books of poetry: A History of the Color Black, Dolphin-Moon Press, 1991; Since You Have No Body, Plan B Press, 2011; The Great Before and After, BrickHouse Books, 2011; and Empire of Leaves, Singing Man Press, 2018.
Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. He has been published in many small magazines , e.g, Antioch Review, Free State Review, Iguana Review, The Potomac, Connections, L’Allure des Mots, Broadkill Review, End of 83. His book Handprint On The Window was published by Three Conditions Press.