Mary Ellen Miller was a poet and Associate Professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
This is the expert and complex work of a gifted poet whose gift is extremely difficult to characterize. Part of Sloate’s power lies in the fact that he doesn’t do anything wrong; these poems are free of posturing, of deliberate obscurities (though they are quite complex), of triteness, of trifling insignificantly with the insignificant.
There are three sections in the book: “Dead Shadows,” “Words from a Castle,” “Lines from the Athanor.” Headnotes to the three sections are lines from Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Yourcenar which describe the fluid logic of the nature of dreams. But Sloate’s world isn’t exactly a dream world, and none of the other usual adjectives (fanatastical, other-worldly, surrealistic) quite seem to fit. It’s probably safest (since so many of his metaphors are difficult to explicate) to say that he has created a poetic world uniquely his.
There are Homeric overtones in the first section, both in language (“wine-filled cape,” “the star-belching night”) and in subject. For one example, there are Circe parallels in “This woman wished my death”:
She took me atop her otherness
And we rode to that wicked island
Where she kept a spear for pricking boys
And if she found your navel
You were hers forever
But these lines aren’t really imitative of Homer or of anyone else.
“We built a little theatre” is a playlet with speaking roles for Captain, Ship, and Boy. On the safe side again, a voyage that ends in death for the play’s spectators, who, after the play, “... ate their way to the graveyard / Where their shrouds awaited them.”
Prince of the “borrowed eyes” and “borrowed voice” sometimes is a lover but at other times seems to be an extension of the speaker: “Prince, from your kingdom in the mirror ....” Section I ends with Prince’s death:
Leaf-stricken trees dirged Prince’s absence
The eyes that had given him life forgot him
And he died
Section II, “Words from a Castle,” contains startlingly effective images, not easy to decipher:
One room is a woman
And the tower holds a boy
The dust joins them
Sifting their flesh
With a winding-sheet
Of antique rose
The castle world is one of interior landscapes of lushness and aridity. The section ends with these lines:
This book will be my face
When silence bites my lips
Or when I listen to your blood
Alive above my dust
Section III, “Lines from the Athanon,” contains love poems. Mainly these are poems about lost love, dream love; but the dream
... has walls of bone
The shadows weave
With the texture of my touch
Love is gone, but the section (and the book) ends with what is retained:
... those slim reflections
The mind’s enshrouding keeps
And hears as silence
The struggle to convey the odd power and beauty of this work is an effort comparable to trying to get hold in memory of a dream, a dream that has left a strong and delicious after-taste in the consciousness but that eludes definition of its precise shape and texture.