Bright Secrets by Lucien Zell
DharmaGaia, 2006

Reviewed by
Stephan Delbos

When it is honest, Lucien Zell's poetry has the potential for radiant insight. The best poems in Zell's new collection, "Bright Secrets" reflect his maturing voice and prove that his writing can match the depth of his vision.
In the most powerful poems of this collection, the narrative voice speaks clearly and authoritatively, beyond conscious poetic or aesthetic sensibilities:

"When I say wind,
I mean breath. When I say
breath, I mean word.
When I say word, I mean
meaning. When I say meaning
I mean depth...."

"Wind to Wind" was written to be shared; every word is a vehicle of conveyance. Its language is unadorned and therefore crisp with clarity. The poem is driven by an authoritative voice more concerned with message than poeticism.
Too often, however, the narrative voice is self-consciously poetic:

"Beauty! Beauty! Aloof alone she swept her hand to breach
Its pristine white aloofness
Beauty! the joy as the swan sweet soft manuvered..."

"Leda and the Myth of Earth" is an ambitious retelling of the myth of Leda and the swan, but the poem is too reliant on adjectives to carry its images. The lines seem to be aware of the profundity of their task and thus cease trusting themselves. Instead of a powerful, natural voice, the narration is frail. The lines are gorged with abstactions; words that sound nice but say very little.
But other poems in the book are stripped of that poetic excess and thus resound:

"Hand thunder!
Something aliens would be surprised by...
The universal yes to ends.
What theatres (and actresses! and politicians!)
Eat and starve without."

"Ode to Applause" combines insight with a rye humor. What drives the lines is a candid voice, not a desire to retell myths, philosophize, or sound poetic. The poem trusts words rather than descriptions to convey insight.
Perhaps the highest achievements of this collection are the poems which remain insightful within the confines of form:

"The ivy's fingers had stretched above
The former home of my former love
And I wandered on, half-aware, O half-aware
That the ivy-like my love-
Might no longer be there...

"...And stood there long, O long I stood
As seeds which have nightmares of firewood
I turned but slowly in my shell."

"The Ivy" incorporates more formal aspects than any other poem in the collection, but does so without poetic posturing. The poem combines narrative and lyrical elements in a cohesive whole. Zell's craft shines in this poem as an ability to invest lines with insight without departing from a clear narrative thread. "The Ivy" is a narrative that sings, an achievement.
"Bright Secrets" is its own achievement for Lucien Zell, for it shows that the poet is as dedicated to craft as vision. When both aspects of Zell's voice harmonize, the poems sing with insight. "Bright Secrets" is a diverse, if uneven collection whose strongest poems set their own standards.


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