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A Book Review of B.W. Powe’s “Decoding Dust”
[Seattle, WA: NeoPoiesis Press, June 14, 2016]
Reviewed by J.S. Porter

Dust is one of the Bible’s primal words, occurring and recurring throughout its pages along with other foundational words such as light, bread, wind, sky, earth and water.

Genesis 3: 19 has this powerful verse: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

B.W. Powe attempts to decode dust; in other words, to decode us.  He invites the reader to

                 Come quietly with me
                 to decode the dust

                 in the speck
                 of a single word

                 how we could be breaking
                 breathing through

He follows the human life cycle from birth to marriage and children, to their leaving, to the loss of parents and friends, to rediscovering love.  The wind—the breath of God in Hebrew scripture—blows us into being and blows us away again.  The leap of faith “is belief in the wind,” Powe writes in “Incautious.”  What came once may come again.

In a poem simply entitled “Dust” the poet remembers that

                 …everything begins
                 in sacred expulsion
                 and that “All crave a return.”

Some of the most moving poems in Decoding Dust have to do with the poet’s mother falling into dementia and her final passing:

                  I hoped my mother would have more life
                  This reclusive woman unfazed by chaos
                  who’d thrived inside the hem of her reading
                  her children her piano and her husband

Like all dust-made creatures, the mother falls back into dust, but not without a son’s blessing-prayer-hope:

                  A rose in dust
                  turns into leaves
                  at your touch

                  I’m trying to read you
                  to read
                  the dust

The poet seeks to do what the mother did throughout her life — turn dust into leaves, into life.

Later in one of the poet’s “Dream Pieces,” he reaches out again:

                  this is my psalm
                  not so pure—it’s—
                  my song of losing you
                  death breath

                      this is a psalm
                  of loving you

The death of the mother is a major event in the book as the death of anyone’s mother is a major event in life. The ripples keep expanding. As the Russian poet Yevtushenko said years ago, when someone dies, a planet—a constellation of connections—dies too. But, then, alongside death is perpetual rebirth: “She is pregnant/with heart/and gives birth/to the earth.”

When reading Decoding Dust, you don’t forget that dust is the primal human element and the mother-child bond is the archetype of human life — how one being gives birth to, and shelters, another.  And, what I call “the mother poems” are the book’s most heart-piercing in their poignancy and heartbreaking in their longing.  In his mother-words—words about his mother—Powe links himself to a long and broad tradition, memorably expressed in our time in film by Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, in the mother-and-child sculptures of Henry Moore, and in David Rieff’s memoir-tribute to his mother, Susan Sontag, in Swimming in a Sea of Death.

There are of course other voices in Decoding Dust aside from a poet-son’s heart-cry.  This being a book by Powe, how could it be otherwise?  The shaman makes periodic appearances, for instance, and her voice in the book reminds the poet and the reader that the dying and the dead “added their shudder/to the world.”  And: “They’ve helped to knit the world
together/into the great weave of sympathy.”

Love notes are exchanged when a husband tenderly says to his wife: “live our moment if only for a moment.”  And the reader instantly returns to the poet’s beautiful dedication to his wife Auxi:  “Wherever I walk without you I keep an open space beside me that is yours.”

The poet sings throughout the book, which is a strange mixture of the elegiac and the celebratory — a cacophony of voices, murmurs, whispers.

               (I’ve seen halos
               since I was a kid—
               rings of light—being
               that sings

“Being that sings” might be an alternative title for Decoding Dust — so central are voice and voices to the text. In fact, all of Powe’s books, in prose or in poetry, incarnate being that sings.  

The poet sings the dead back to life by remembering details of their existence that only he can remember; that is the light, the sacred fire, a child carries for a parent, a husband shares with a wife, and a poet carries for all of us.

                                                    J. S. Porter, www.spiritbookword.net 

In Dialogue Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 2
Winter 2016-17, p.19

For purchase of Decoding Dust, order from www.neopoiesispress.com.

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