Three Winters of Poems in One Breath: Cadenzas by Needlelight by Paul B. Roth

Cadenzas by Needlelight

Cadenzas by Needlelight
BY Paul B. Roth
(Cypress Books, 2009)

inside my house
a spoon
against its cup

A white moth’s
quickly quiets
this ringing

Barely missed
cupped hands

this moth
this poem
composed for it
escapes me

— “When Nothing Happens,” p. 14

Such a poem is emblematic of the deceivingly apparent simplicity and stark concision that governs Paul B. Roth’s sixth collection. With a prepositional silence that weaves through minute observations of happenings in life and in nature, Cadenzas by Needlelight is full of many secrets — and rewarding surprises. Free from layered intentions, intellectual conceptions or complex arrangements, it is par excellence, a refreshing, positive read.

Divided into three sections — “Cadenzas by Needlelight,” “A Genetic Cracking of Green” and “Burning the Third Sun” — the entire collection bears a crystallized voice in its rendering of riddle-like verses. Presumably, as the title implies, these three sections had come into existence during three different winters. The open-ended quality of the poems reminds one easily of kōans. They invite as well as seduce, while working hard at keeping intact a certain level of sincerity and warmth. In its tiny world, each writing reveals an eye that observes at a distance, often evoking a perplexed state of query in the metaphysical world, or something beyond an easy grasp. Consciously or not, the speaker reveals from now to then his personal paradoxies, failings, conflicted sentiments and inconsistencies in reconciling the imperfection of earthly affairs, sometimes in reluctance, at times with much indecision.

In a distinctly lyrical and meditative mode, the poems demonstrate an enticing fragility that situates between reservation and caution. That said, this sense of fragility is not quite as fragile as one reckons; it imposes itself like a tightrope between control and equilibrium. Nothing is dramatic, nor hyperbolic — at the very least, the poet seems to wish to work towards this ideal. Consistently, every verse does not exceed three or four words, while stanzas stay within the range of five lines. Seemingly minimalist, each work also offers generous breathing spaces between intense stanzas, pacing from silence to silence:

I sleep
all day avoiding

Winter digs in
the covers

A nighthawk’s
low return
flutters open
my eyelids

its talons rip
the blood-stained

sheets off
this unthinkable

— “Wishful Thinking,” p. 67

The simplicity and economy of Roth’s verses demand an emotional investment from the reader, who must explore the rest of the unwritten or the unsaid in his or her own imagination. How images juxtapose with one another is both a metaphysical exercise and a voyage of metaphors. A reader finds his or her way from one image to the other without a predominant narrative voice that dictates or offers cues. Without language crowding out imagery and time, each word becomes a lens for individual moments of introspection. In this aspect, every word behaves like a pure note, without echoes or side-noise. Only music arises gradually from a specific breath and rhythm that shapes each stanza, renewing and refueling one’s curiosity in the next unanticipated moment of being —

gulps the air
of all oxygen


My wristwatch
to the floor

gripping my pulse
for faint bass lines

My heart’s
big toe
throbs unheard

— “Jazz,” p. 81

As the collection’s title has suggested, each piece delivers itself as a cadenza. There is no refrain, however. As far as form and structure are concerned, the poet lets go of rigidity, such that each writing comes across as naturally as possible, spontaneous or even improvised. In this respect, the poetic voice is free, its tonality undeliberate. Some writings contain subtle, philosophical musings on dreams, past loves, seasons and the passage of time, while drawing their inspiration from a wellspring of autobiographical experiences. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the fable-like poem, “A Boy’s Moon”:

A full moon’s
fallen in the road

A boy with dark hands
happens by, looks around
then picks it up


What’s left
clouds piece back together
into faces of water

The boy with dark hands
cries on and on
about the moon he never had

His empty hands
stretching to the sky
ache as they wave

Into each of their creases
deep shadows
fill with broken light

— “A Boy’s Moon,” p. 30

Several poems also celebrate an organic lifestyle that is pared down to its harmony with nature. It is clear that the poet constructs a strong relationship with matter and nature that surrounds him. His emotional landscape connects with the external environment. A cup, a silver ring, or the shadow of a fork bring back the memories of “gentle ones who have left” (p. 37), while the “fingernails of rain” (p. 74), “black spots /opening / in apple leaves” and “blond green / spiders” (p. 75) bring the poet’s “unknown selves” (p. 75) and traces of his Lithuanian ancestry (p. 76) into painful remembrance.

That said, if one were to expect a robust or tonic read from this collection, one may feel that the somewhat introspective language and contexts could perhaps risk alienating a neutral reader. The deliberate precaution of not “concluding” — so as to preserve the specifics of observations — may induce a slower line pace. Boldness and courage in taking the risks of transforming specific moments into a direct engagement with others’ realities may not be one of this collection’s agendas, yet one may also question if this is the flip side of the coin, i.e. keeping quietude at its strongest intensity.

Bashō once wrote, “The temple bell stops — / but the sound keeps coming /out of the flowers.” In a similar way that the Japanese master epouses silence in his haikus, Roth strives towards creating fullness out of emptiness; he plainly states more when writing less. Exactitude is his agenda in terms of word choice and diction. Such discretion is rare among the American contemporary poetry aesthetics. Like a compilation of random yet delightful diary entries, the writings arrange themselves in space on the page, gently threading through the needle of time — in search of sound and light.

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