The poems making up the lengthy collection Bare Witness were written over the course of 50 years, according to author Joseph Small, who describes them as “poems of life and love, anger and hope, humor and passing.” The pieces are ordered by theme, rather than chronologically, in sections titled “Love,” “Awareness,” “Anger,” “Hope,” “Fanciful,” “Homage,” “Life,” “Live” and “Transience.”
Small’s work often bursts with verve through kinetic imagery and vivid figurative language, as in “The Last Liberation” in the Hope section. The poem begins, “Last big bang banged/ sandstorm of energy/ rocketing around/ limitless directions/ like a motorcycle gang/ on a mad rumble rampage/ of clashing star chains.” Similarly, “Sweet Dreams I begins”: “How many/ draw the blankets/ up at night/ to dream of unshackled zebras.”
The poet shows range through quieter poems as well, such as “Heaven Scent” in the Awareness section, which gets underway gently: “Feather me through this world/ Wind a fine gold thread like the nuns used to say.” Or “The Wow of the World,” with its opening lines: “I tap onto consciousness/ A tendril seeking in and out/ Aware of the windows.”
Less effective are Small’s love poems, a category poets often have trouble making fresh. “Underture to 1812 Love,” for example, begins blandly: “There’s a moment when/ Your love lifts me/ Even when I am far.” This approach, addressing the message to a distant loved one, feels anonymous and fails to resonate emotionally. The plea that characterizes “Water Unto Water” — “I cannot find my way into your heart without your help/ Do not hide the path I seek to follow” —feels more like a sullen demand than the hopeful call to love it seems to intend.
Overall, though, the poems offer universal themes shown in a unique light. With its largely contemplative tone, the collection might especially appeal to people in their mature years who have witnessed many fellow travelers in life and are eager to reflect.
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