Lake and Other Poems of Love in a Foreign Land
by Jeff Fearnside (Kazakhstan 2002–04)
Kent, Ohio: Standing Rock Cultural Arts
Reviewed by Kenneth C. Wylie (Sierra Leone 1961–63)
I LIKE THESE POEMS. Reading them the first time through I did not stop to think about the ways I might enjoy them, or perceive them, but found myself grabbed by their particulars, and of course the alien places in which they are set. Which is not to say that I immediately ‘enjoyed’ lines like this,
you’re not to blame
for the way people think
or don’t here. I don’t always
understand the culture
but rather that I found this poet bringing me in. Though his narrative style is a little jarring, I came to enjoy his encounter with a strange culture — one he seems immersed in if not altogether comfortable in — that of Kazakhstan and its environs. He pulled me back to dim memories of similar experiences. Here he is, with a loved one, trying to make friends and stay healthy and do a difficult job, with very little knowledge or previous experience: one hell of a challenge that.
Fearnside may not be Captain Cook sailing the Pacific, finding and reporting on exotic and unknown worlds, but in these verses he wants to understand the people he encounters . . . as well as better understand himself, and his beloved companion,
We will always remember that we met here,
not in St. Petersburg or London or Rome
but in the dusty summer heat of Shymkent,
A place for survival, not romance.
A place to hide from the climate,
the clamor, our nosy friends.
though he seems (perhaps as all of us were) stunned by differences, by deeply rooted traditions, by inertia and fatalism and all the baggage that makes it so tough for a young American to see through the eyes of a different culture,
The smells form currents:
of sweat and dust and fish in buckets,
of bread, samsa, and fetid puddles,
of cigarettes, always cigarettes,
of shashlyk riding clouds of ash
and pans of pungent herbs that
the gypsy women burn for a few coins
to prevent cold or flu
or, perhaps, the evil eye.
and tonight, poised between
two cultures, the low desert and the high
mountains, there’s nothing sweeter than the two
pears you have eaten —
I find that simple lines like this capture the newcomer’s rawness, the sleep-denying effect of what we once called “culture shock,” and, though some of these lines are almost too raw in their imagery, there is hope expressed as love, here.
Sometimes good poems do not come to us easily, either in the making of them or the understanding of them but, this little chapbook is grounded in reality
One hundred fifteen degrees? Enjoy
a steaming cup of chai.
Never drink one piala. Drink one
for you, one for your mate
Drink even more
to make your hostess happy.
When she finally pours it full,
it’s time to leave.
When I read through this little collection of 28 pages, some days later, reading them consecutively, I found these verses even more edgy than they seemed at first. Indeed the vigorous sentiments come through (without sentimentality). This is quite an achievement.
For people who have lived this life, even if the venue is entirely different (a rainforest, or arid tropical savannah), and for those who have not but know the pain and joy of love in strange places, I recommend this little book.
A writer, Kenneth Wylie has taught at Michigan State University, Lehman College of CUNY, The Maritime College of SUNY, and Wayne State University. He served with Sierra Leone I, and in later years lived and traveled widely in Africa. He received his Ph.D in history from Michigan State University and lives now in Northport, Michigan.