Review of Bright Darkness by John Zheng, with permission from Valley Voices
Bright Darkness is a poetry collection by Ken Letko. It bears, in a rich profusion of
imagery and sensibility, the influence of the imagists such as William Carlos Williams.
John Bradley says in the blurb, Letko is “William Carlos Williams…alive and well,
living and writing in Crescent City, California,” but both poets in fact have a remarkable
difference. While Williams’ verse focuses on the locality of an American region, Letko’s shifts
his focus to places of the world he has traveled. An international traveler whose travelling
experiences in China, Germany, Mexico, Ecuador, Canada, and the United States, his own
country, have “globalized his awareness of the natural world and diverse cultures,” Letko sets up
a stage, the seven subtitled sections of his poetic travelogues, for the reader to experience his
encounter with diverse cultures.
Reading Letko’s poetry, one will notice that the poet distinguishes himself with three main
characteristics. First, most of his poems are written in couplet or tercet, composed of short line
stanzas, though one may see a poem slightly irregular with a noticeable 5/5/5/2 stanza pattern, as
in “The Elm.” Secondly, many poems discard punctuation. For example, all poems in the second
section, subtitled “All This Tangling,” are unpunctuated. The poet must want to omit commas
and periods with an intention to let the lines, the voice, and the rhythm flow without any blocks
or to challenge attentive reading without the help of punctuation. The poet may also think that
the line break is punctuation enough. Thirdly, sensibility and figurative language play a
significant role to create the effect of Letko’s poems. He is a poet of senses and presents his rich
imagination especially through seeing and hearing. The first poem, “A Brief History of
Moisture,” is an example that possesses these three characteristics:
snow is purity alive
each grown crystal
the younger child
snow has been mist
in the redwoods
has been the surf
has ridden a wave
in every ocean
learned to swim
snow has been rain
washing the pupa
of a moth hanging on
through a hurricane
in Haiti every drop
of water is older than all
humans and trout gills
poplar trees explode
at forty below zero
and Celsius collide
conspiring with crystals
to turn a tree’s blood
into unique clear shapes
every puddle on Earth
has climbed a mountain
has been a mirror
without a map
as a cloud
This poem employs the technique of associative thinking to suggest not only the continuous flow
of lines but reveal as well the conscious flow of the mind about snow, an image that keeps
changing its visual form from moisture to mist, surf, wave, rain, and cloud. Each change
indicates a physical process and presents the poet’s imagination in using the metaphors to explain
the relationship between the snow and its other forms; it also reveals his insight into the
interrelatedness and kinetic energy existing in the natural world and his globalized awareness of
the importance of the snow as an essential constituent to life and as a cloud drifting without a
map that juxtaposes the poet’s travel.
Letko populates his poems with imagery because he understands that poetry needs the
charged language to enlighten the perception of the mind with a purpose to turn sight into
insight. One theme repeated in some poems is life in death or cycle of life in nature for a reader
to leap beyond objective imagery to gain some awareness of nature. In “Mowing,” in the
whirlwind that “whips up the dead leaves” the poet envisions the frogs leaping and “fleeing for
their lives.” In “The Cycle,” the blossoms beaten to the ground by rain indicate the cycle of life
that rises. This poem is evocative of a Chinese quatrain written by Gong Zizhen (1792-1841), of
which the last two lines are: “Fallen blossoms are nothing devoid of feeling: / When mixed into
spring soil they promote flowering.”
It is impressive that section six, “Shelter for Those Who Need It,” is a vibrant record of travel
in China. Images function to appeal to the reader’s senses and imagination. The metaphor in
“Aberdeen Harbour, Hong Kong” sets up a fresh connection between the sail and the shell:
“When the ocean moves / the sail of a Chinese / junk is a giant sea // shell filled with wind.”
Another metaphorical appeal is “clothespins / become birds resting / between songs …” in “Out
the Window.” Some poems in this section are like sketches done from the poet’s daily
observations. They are objective and imagistic, and emotions do not seem to exist in them,
similar to what William Carlos Williams wrote in his short poems such as “The Pot of Flowers,”
“The Sun Bathers,” “Poem,” “Nantucket,” “Classic Scene,” and “Autumn.” As a poet believing
in “no ideas but in things,” Letko focuses his writing on thingness, and the concrete words he
chooses accurately accompany the perception of the reality. Read “Chinese Fast Food”: “a pretty
girl / with a sugar / cane walking // stick takes / a bite chews / then spits // in the street / other
people / eat yams // like ice cream / cones wrapped / in newspaper // steamed bread / is a hot
snow / ball consumed // by a passenger / side saddle on / a Flying Pigeon // bicycle made / in
China like / many kinds of // fast food” and a reader may find a connection between Letko and
Williams in their focus on thingness.
Bright Darkness is a wonderful collection of poems deserving reading for surprise and
delight and for awareness of nature and cultures that the poet shares with us. Yet, I do wish the poet could have made variations in the poetic pattern so that the perception of sameness might be avoided, but each poet has his own characteristics that distinguish himself, as discussed earlier.
Review by J.D. Older, Posted on Amazon May 8 2017
I lost myself in Ken Letko’s seven-storied SELECTED POEMS during a last-ditch 18 inch New England blizzard. The Bright Darkness cover photo—a white egret that looks like an exotic blooming flower—sets in motion a journey riddled with mysterious micro-macro cosmic messages. Who else, except perhaps Emily D, can juxtapose "molecules and galaxies” or encapsulate a “Marsh” in 27 words?
If you love poetry or don’t understand it or want to write it or would rather be outdoors, Ken Letko offers accessible admission and gradual ascent. This poet, teacher, fire-ranger is a master of the short line. Some earlier sections aren’t punctuated, yet lead you along.
In fact, what I enjoy most about Bright Darkness is the interspecies walk-fly-swim along.
Turtles, jays, cougar, wolf, butterflies, sea lions share Wallt Whitman’s “open (public) road”
with a hitchhikder, butcher, bricklayer, Native American, Vietnam Vet, Gypsy, Chinese, strangers,
The poems progress and expand with observations of a stay in China—which culminates
with the poem “Trails.” Actually, the entire book is a trail-blazer. Readers run into surprising
lookouts and outlooks from beginning to end.
An anonymous Amazonian e-mai asked me: “Did the item (Bright Darkness) you ordered
meet your expectations?”
I gave up expectations long ago.
What I can say is that Letko is no ordinary poet. His voice whispers, cries, listens, smiles.
I admire his bigger-than-life short epigrammatic bio-pics of jazz guitarist Django Rinehardt
and pop painter Andy Warhol. Or hearing laughter when I read “Saltines” and “In China”
aloud to a friend. By the time I reach the final section “Even Breathing” I’m thankful poetry“pulls the drowning poet from the current/ and the ocean breaths us all.”
What attracts me, and I believe will attract others to Bright Darkness is its overall growth and strength.
Review of Bright Darkness by Michael Karl Ritchie
This culmination of a life’s work places Ken Letko squarely in the tradition of Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder. A master of enjambment, Letko chisels precise crystals of images that cascade down the page in a practical yet very wise exploration that gleans hope from loss. With good-natured humor, he confronts the setbacks in life and nature, to winnow from his experiences an underlying joy and winsome presence. His poetry comes from the great transcendental tradition of Thoreau and Whitman, that challenges conventional expectations to achieve a more humane vision. Consider this poem:
THE WAY TIME PASSES
The thin tight
wall of a balloon
is attacked by air
pressure. There is
resistance but with
time air is always
allowed to sleep
through. Can you
picture the idea?
Maybe like roots’
through earth. Maybe
like time passing
through us instead of us
passing through time.
These enjambments break apart the relentless passage of time by splitting it with the breath of the poet: “air/pressure” and “time air” build to the metaphor of “roots’ / growth” that connects trees and humans through a “filtering,” so that by the closure, there is an enduring steadfastness to life in nature. I wish I had Ken Letko’s buoyant optimism, because it arises not from ignoring unpleasant truths, but by capturing, line by line, breath by breath, a thought process that liberates from despair, and thereby puts these poems in a tradition of healing wisdom.
The book also collects poems from his experiences in China.
Down from the Gobi
a yellow wind brings
dust in spring,
cover their eyes
with their hands.
Mouths shut tight
people angle from
shelter to shelter.
After some rain
a morning fog
soothes the valley.
corn and wheat
at a time
This struggle with the loess that fertilizes Chinese crops is dramatized through the effect upon the farmers themselves, creating a people who “cover their eyes” and keep “Mouths shut tight.” Once crops begin to rise, Ken Letko links China to Ohio, suggesting the struggle for food is as universal as the need for shelter. Indeed, many of the poems in this collection are concerned with how to obtain shelter that lasts, given the fires and devastation that now surround us. Those concerns come from Ken Letko’s own experiences abroad, and as a lookout on Red Mountain in the Siskiyou Range. There is a reassuring authenticity to these insights, earned from and reflecting on the essence of life.
THE HORIZON IS SO FAR
the ocean is
flat at dawn
after curving around
the earth all night
they walk on white
sand and remain
rational enough to
keep from falling
in love they want
to quiet down
for a while
glowing at daybreak
and drift on
is so far
they would be fools
to stop walking
In this broken stream of fused gasps, “in love they want” not to be irrational, not to lose “their hearts,” especially in a landscape whose “phosphorus quits/glowing at daybreak.” For Ken Letko, human survival is determined by an ability to adapt to the land itself, that becomes both threat and source of new life — ”plankton float/and drift on.” To transcend the horizon is a challenge for all nomads who “walk on white/ sand” and try to “keep from falling.” And yet, even though it is always an unattainable horizon, that is the condition of all wanderers like Ken Letko – “they would be foolish/to stop walking.”
Indeed. I wish him well on his continued journey, now that he has left us with so fine a collection of poems. It is truly a breathtaking culmination of work honestly lived and passed on – a true heritage that deserves a wide readership.
[November 23, 2017]