David Herrle reviews BRIGHTNESS by Joy Ann Cabanos Lara

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As I wrote in my endorsement blurb for the book: “Though Brightness casts shadows, the book is a celebration of Light.  Lara performs a solo danse de caractère, glissading through highs and lows, artistic and soulful striving, and familial reverie with an unselfconscious consciousness of self.  It isn’t difficult to tell that Brightness is written by an artist who understands the conjugal dance of colors and emotions, who knows that existence is a living canvas.”

At the risk of sounding self-satisfied (something I could never achieve), I’m not sure how to go beyond that statement in promoting Lara’s debut poetry book.  There’s a skimness to the poems; one doesn’t get lost in cream and calories.  What is her father’s smile and laughter?  Her “true north.”  She’s anxious for the sunrise that seems to never come, and the shadows advise, “wait.  breathe.  wait.”  Two women return from Florence: one filled with Giotto and Botticelli, the other filled with Versace, Ferragamo.  No odes to Grecian urns – but to wildflowers and a redhead (who happens to be a lovely painter and one of the author’s mentors).  How does she revere her aunt?  By celebrating her special lasagna.  “Soup/simmers memory” opens a piece entitled “Nilaga.”  In “Out of Richmond Mornings” she translates birdcall into human sentences.

Though Lara’s language tends toward quaintness (not in the bad way), it’s usually presented freshly.  She’s not afraid to use dance motifs, to ask poesyish questions such as “could I/would I, should I/love you” (without a question mark).  In “Not Dancing” she is unabashedly poetic: “You may think me a sylph/or some raptor unfettered by gravity.” Likewise when she calls a tree “the Rooted Guardian.”  But in “Colors From a Past Life”: “[Y]ou’ve chosen lies, not life force -/that pixel sun,/that jpeg sea,/those plasma blooms…”

Fourteen plates of Lara’s original paintings and sketches (and some photographs) enliven the text and deepen the sense of the poet’s love for her subjects.  They also show off her (primary) talents in the visual arts.  Many of the pieces are studies, which seem more touching due to not being full-blown compositions, especially when they portray her family.  What a treat to see the poet’s father laughing while reading about his laugh.  (A “true north” if I ever saw one!)

Brightness chronicles Lara’s confessional fluctuations through shadows and light while sustaining a rare and enviable underlying exuberance, a…joy (what an appropriate namesake!) even in the loss of loved ones and the frustrating duration of learning, becoming.  In one of the opening poems she is “tired/of dreams remaining dreams;” in the closing piece she vows to be “the one who peels the rainbow off the floor/and hoists it/onto the worldwearied lines of sight.”

– review by David Herrle 1/2012


Author bio: Visual artist and writer Joy Ann Cabanos Lara grew up in Manila, the Philippines.  She moved to various cities in the US, lived in the UK, and traveled in England, France,Greece and Italy.  She is a member of the Westfield Art Society Drawing Group, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, and the Contemporary Art Group (NJ).  Joy’s  last solo art exhibit, New Eyes (at Windsor Street Gallery, Chertsey, UK) featured her paintings and poems together with great success.