Review

San Miguel de Allende
by Andrew H. Oerke (PC Staff: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Jamaica 1966–71)
Swan Books
2005
91 pages
$15.00

African Stiltdancer
by Andrew H. Oerke (PC Staff: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Jamaica 1966–71)
Swan Books
2006
91 pages
$15.00

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-66)

    ANDREW OERKE’S San Miguel de Allende and African Stiltdancer won the 2006 Peace Corps Writers Award for Best Poetry Books published in 2005. They are a dazzling combination of philosophical musings on history and human culture presented through a bombardment of visual images and colors.
         Judging the quality of poetry is an impossible task. Subjectivity and personal tastes are unavoidable. Many of Oerke’s poems, in my opinion, are too convoluted with constant use of personification, rapid shifts in images, and frequent mixing of sensory experiences. An example is the poem “Moonlight,” in which he writes, “Moments . . . / teeter their columns on cliffs of time, / then whiff off through the smoky, / hazy arches of our climate,” and “Your champagne eyes fizz away / like seconds uncorking the clock / to hive in the moon’s Rosetta rock.”
         The word “hive” contains the clue to understanding much of Oerke’s poetry. It is commonly used in science fiction to mean “group minds with (almost) complete loss (or lack) of individuality, identity, and personhood,” according to The Free Dictionary on line.
         At his best, Oerke is as good as any American poet writing today. His concrete images and extended metaphors guide us through the shadowy past of the collective unconscious.
         Two good examples in San Miguel de Allende are “Tres Arcos, San Miguel de Allende” and “Buildings, San Miguel de Allende.” In “Tres Arcos” Oerke explains the construction of native Mexican, Spanish, and Roman arches as “Ways to express our values in limestone.” Arches “stand akimbo like film directors / Cropping our looking out or someone’s looking in.”
         Oerke uses Spanish and Indian architecture to illustrate how space is the essence of design in the poem “Buildings.” He writes, “All our buildings box in bits of the void, / All our buildings girdle an emptiness. / The secret is in the way the vacancy / Is divided into more expensive units.”
         Many of Oerke’s poems remind readers that we are unable to verbalize the deep mysteries of life. The appeal of music is one of these mysteries. In “Gregorian Chant” he explores the attraction of the haunting sounds that “echo in the listener’s / Inner drums, whose chambers worship the monastery / Acoustics resonating to an insight.”
         Oerke’s poems often explore the idea that reality is the experience, but that we too often confuse our memory of the experience with the real thing. In “Reflections on Monet’s Reflections, Giverney,” Oerke demonstrates how difficult it is for us to see the difference: “Coated with squashed-flower paint-juice, the water’s / Coated also with viewpoints that spoof the senses / Into thinking what we see is what we are, / Into thinking reflections are primal matter.”
         In the African Stiltdancer, Oerke continues exploring the process of recording and communicating culture. His poems in the third section, “In the Village,” stand out from the rest. In the poem “The African Woman,” words and emotion blend to create a sublime tribute to the mysterious attraction of African women. This is one of those rare poems we understand but are unable to summarize. The first stanza reads: “The night has polished your face like an apple. / I love that night is loitering in your arms, / that your eyes are birthday candles that light / back up after night winds blow them out, / and that your throat’s cave is where darkness sings, / though you project a moving around / your body’s magic lantern silhouette.”
         Oerke captures the highs and lows of human experience in his Africa poems. The poem “Refugees” presents a haunting scene of forgotten people: “Weather erodes their backs / and mind gives no reflection / as they vanish in their tracks. / Refugees just fade away . . . / Whited out, pressed too thin, / their number’s unsensed by the census. / Their time has no more tenses.”
         Poets can only be as good as their life experiences lead them. And Oerke has enough of this to cover two or three life times. According to his bio, Oerke has been a “Golden Gloves champ,” “football player,” “Korean War veteran,” “Peace Corps Director in Africa and the Caribbean,” “university professor,” “president of a private and voluntary organization,” “dean of administration at one of the largest community colleges,” “World Bank consultant,” and “consultant to the United Nations on the Gulf War, on financial services, and on the environment.”
         In addition, Oerke “studied at many universities in the US and abroad, including a Fulbright scholarship at the Freie Universitat in Berlin.” He also studied poetry at Baylor University and the University of Iowa writers’ workshop.
         I haven’t seen the movie Superman Returns yet, but I think the model lives somewhere in Florida, passing himself off as Andrew Oerke practicing “his first love” — writing poetry full time.

    Tony Zurlo’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, Humdinger, The Cynic, and Peace Corps Writers. He also has stories and poems appearing in future issues of Armageddon Buffet and Long Story Short.
         Tony has also published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the
    Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats US, Democracy Means You, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEdNews.