“Canine in the Promised Land” Philip J Kowalski (Atmosphere Press) – book review

Philip J Kowalski Canine in the Promised Land book cover

Philip J Kowalski is fond of playing with language, looking again at tired phrases to bring them back to life and re-examine their purpose. In “The Tip of the Iceberg”, he acknowledges the cliché and ends the poem looking at the melting of polar ice,

“‘That’s just the [fill in the blank],’
As we struggle to articulate
The ravages of the earth
That we have shamelessly betrayed.”

The tip of the iceberg is the very visible sign of the climate crises, the bulk of which is hidden below the surface as the melting polar ice is indicative of the underlying problems which reach beyond the polar regions. Problems that the human race doesn’t seem ready to act on.

“Ariadne’s Thread” starts by referencing the myth,

“The thread
Of Ariadne
Was meant
To find
A way
Out of
A labyrinth,
With all
Of its
Dead ends,
False beginnings,
And obviate ways.”

It goes on to describe a spider’s web constructed on the poet’s porch and ends after a storm where the web was destroyed and the poet hoped,

“That the little artist had survived
Somehow, somewhere, to
Weave her way again.

Minerva had nothing on her.

At the time I believed I occupied a wasted life.
But now, looking back, I see how I lived
Through quite a web of experience.”

In the shorter lines, Kowalski’s habit of using initial capitals interrupt the flow of the rhythm and appear to give insignificant words (“of”, “to”, etc) an unjustified prominence. Momentarily I looked for an acrostic that wasn’t there. In the ending section, the focus shifts on to the small, routine things that seem a waste of time, but when looked back on from a distance, take on a significance or, to use a cliché, prove greater than the sum of the parts.

The title poem praises a dog’s ability to smell and how smell is linked to taste, so you,

“Would not discount your
Best friend’s snout. No matter
What kind of dog food you buy,
Gourmet, wet, cold, treat, or dry,
Every dog has its day. “

The part-rhymes (“discount”, “snout”, “buy”, “dry”) don’t follow a pattern and the final line feels as if the poet ran out of steam and put in a holding line until a more satisfying one could be found.

Narcissus pops up in a poem that uses the name/myth as a title and the idea the poet doesn’t know an actor who wasn’t a narcissist, and ends,

“You’ll never understand, just
What a sieve and empty vessel you are,
No matter the acclaim and the applause.
But in the silence of night, and in the
Depth of your thoughts, you know that,
Deep in the guts of your being,
You have accomplished essentially naught.”

A contrast to the spider who worked her heart out on a web that was destroyed. The actor merely reads lines written by someone else and plays roles for no other purpose than the applause. It also appears to contradict itself, positing that the actor doesn’t know they are an “empty vessel” but also knows that they have “accomplished essentially naught”. However, the point is that in front of an audience the narcissist comes to life, it’s only when left alone the unwelcome reality has to be acknowledged.

Appropriately “The End” of a relationship notes,

“An imagination,
Something to do.
Now I move on,
With no
Of you.”

It’s not when the relationship breaks down that it has ended, but when the person who has been dumped can face a future when they no longer incorporate the person who left them.

In “Canine in the Promised Land”, Philip J Kowalski plays with expectations and revisits tired, cliched language to offer new observations and a touch of wry humour to provoke readers into re-thinking assumptions. Some poems are strictly contemporary, others evoke myth and some feel as if the poet had settled without finishing his exploration. Gentle poems that don’t quite live up to their promise.

“Canine in the Promised Land” is available from Atmosphere Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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