We All Reach the Earth by Falling was a semi-finalist in the 2014 Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award, an honour which earned it publication by Vine Leaves Press. The Vine Leaves judges are obviously presumed to love it, but I was not involved in judging the competition, so the review below is my own, written long after the award was made.
What first drew me to pick up this beautifully designed book was the mystical yet down-to-earth title (if you'll excuse the pun). In the month in which this world at least lost David Bowie, it smacks both of Bowie-esque other-worldliness ("The Man Who Fell to Earth") and of the common-sense approach to life that you might pick up from your grandmother: I picture a white-haired old lady calling a flighty youngster to her senses with the levelling barb, "We all reach the Earth by falling, dear."
As regular readers of Vine Leaves Literary Journal will know, the origin of the term vignette is a piece of writing that would fit on a vine leaf. Bauke Kamstra's poems in this collection certainly qualify for that classification.
An object lesson to the verbose, Kamstra's extracts so much meaning from so few words. Each poem is given its own page to grace, which means every one is framed in copious white space. Whether a poem is heartening, poignant, funny or enigmatic, the restrained plain canvas adds point to Kamstra's careful choice of words. It also allows the reader to digest each piece properly before moving on to the next, palate cleansed by the intervening expanse of white.
Deceptively Simple Power
The power of his sparse verse put me in mind of the Romantics' return to simple, natural concepts and candour. I hope it doesn't make me sound pretentious when I say that on reading "Mum's Accordion", for example: "My mother's accordion / played so / many old hymns / but the ecstasy / was all hers", I was reminded irresistibly of the simple expression in Wordsworth's "She dwelt among untrodden ways", which finishes so memorably "She lived unknown, and few could know/ When Lucy ceased to be; / But she is in her grave, and, oh, / The difference to me!"
Often the poems are haiku-like in the narrow precision of their focus, triggered by a single mundane action or phenomenon, espied and isolated for consideration - the manner in which a girl handles wet laundry, or the impact of ivy on a stone wall. Contrasting images of heavy weight and lightness, rising and falling, gravity-defiance and gravity-obedience pepper the collection, whether Kamstra is musing introspectively about his own status of artist and poet, or peering into the minds of a wide cast of characters from young girls to seasoned lovers to the veterans of war. The ease and confidence with which he maniplates this tiny format make the vignette's form seem deceptively simple, yet the poems, yield further and deeper meanings - or indeed questions - each time one rereads them.
To Fall or to Fly?
For all its good sense and grounding advice, the title and the cover of the book hint that perhaps we should be aiming to soar. Why else would it clothe the poems in an image of feathers? - an image which also permeates the interior of the book, a single one drifting down to rest, tantalising, at the foot of each right-hand page inside.
Echoing Oscar Wilde, while all of us are in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars, and no matter how much Kamstra's obedience to the laws of gravity dictate his inevitable fall, it doesn't stop him, or the reader, from longing to soar.