There are three basic types of complexity a reader encounters in contemporary poetry.  The first type arises when inexperienced poets have not yet developed sufficient intellectual and emotional depth to understand their subject matter or have not yet developed an adequate command of language.  The resulting product is muddled rather than deep.  The second is deliberate obfuscation, practiced today mainly by the New York School, the Surrealist movement, and the “concrete” and “language” poets.  Rather than creating meaningful complexity, these poets are playing intellectual games that have no serious bearing on our lives.

The third type arises from depth of intellect and feeling and a concomitant skill with language.  There will always be some readers who demand this type of complexity from poetry because they cannot be intellectually or emotionally stimulated or satisfied by less.  Whatever has depth is by its very nature complex.  It is this type of complexity that abounds in the poetry of Constance Rowell Mastores.  The complexities of A Deep but Dazzling Darkness revolve around the central theme of an intense, arduous, and unrelenting struggle for identity.  Mastores’ tenacious drive to discover ever more deeply her true self offers the reader new ways of viewing and interpreting how each of us is connected to the worlds inside and outside us.

The self Mastores pursues is a Jungian concept, the totality of the psyche rather than just the ego consciousness we usually think of as being “us.”  This self is ineffable and cannot be known directly, but only as incomplete facets of its content attach to outward symbols.  When meaningful unconscious material that demands utterance and vivid objective symbols converge, the results, if properly recognized and understood, can awaken our deepest insights into our inner selves.  The symbols that can open this understanding are abundantly available around us.  For Mastores, the three primary sources of personal symbols are nature, the associated sciences of astronomy and physics, and figures from Western cultural history.

In the realm of science we discover how penetratingly intelligent this exploring mind is, particularly in her understanding of the principles of quantum mechanics.  From astronomy to subatomic physics, Mastores searches for herself in the largest and smallest structures known in the universe.  “Learning to Look at Winter” reveals the etiology of her absorption in astronomy.  And in one of her most intriguing poems, “Song,” she reports that the astronomer Cornelius Gustav Jiménez, who is also a professional musician, claims to have heard a black hole singing the lowest note of the universe, B flat 57 octaves below middle C.  Her poems exhibit some of the most important established concepts of quantum mechanics.  Here are two such passages, first from “Doppelgänger”:

Could she move weightlessly

and by her weight still hold him to the path?

And then from “The Moirae”:

The sound so elemental it seemed to rise

from a mouth at the other end of time . . .

If Mastores’ intellect is imposing, so is her level of education and culture.  She reveals considerable familiarity with notable classical and modern writers, artists, and musicians.  Greek mythology and history provides an especially rich source of material.  She so frequently incorporates the Orpheus/Eurydice story that I have to conclude that, to her, it is a major symbol of the psyche.  It is the archetypal descent into the unconscious, which is a type of death.  There are quite powerful tones of fear and loss: the dread of loss of identity (Eurydice), and the loss of the ego’s completeness of selfhood (Orpheus).

As one might expect of such erudition, Mastores’ poems are often rewardingly complex, particularly when she discovers interrelated symbols of identity in a scene.  In “Winter Constellations,” she watches each night from her window as a spider drops into the pattern of light created by Orion:

. . . the black spider is hanging

inside Orion hanging outside her window—

and that the two now seem inseparable.

Then she takes it a step further by projecting herself as a participant rather than a mere observer.  A far more subtle complexity occurs in “Willow Song Among the Leonids.”  The speaker has gone outside at night to watch the meteor shower while listening to Verdi’s Otello, when she becomes aware that birds in a nearby willow correspond to the lines sung by Desdemona.  This unfolds into a three-layered metaphor in which the meteorites’ movement through brightness to burnout, and the flight of birds from the tree (birds often symbolize the human soul or spirit), presage Desdemona’s impending death.

In an interesting complement to the discovery of identity in nonhuman symbols, the persona often projects anthropomorphic processes and volitions onto these symbols.  This represents a lucid recognition of how observation corresponds with inner state of mind, as in “Touching New Bark”:

I like the mood of the manzanita,

the way it sloughs its winter bark, inviting me

to brush away its dark furls and touch

the lucid underneath.

Jung often wrote or stated that the quest to meet and know the self is fraught with psychic peril and fear, though ultimately the rewards were worth the risks.  Mastores’ poems bristle with the frustrations and fears of the journey.  She questions whether the quest is merely a delusional wish, or whether she is up to the challenge.  To counterbalance the anguish and doubt, many of her poems express hope and anticipation of success.  In “Kalypso’d,” on the still wintry first day of spring, as she considers how the eucalyptus sheds its old bark to make room for new growth and a blue jay strops its beak clean of dead cells, she comes to a recognition:

. . . And how we struggle

toward identity, shedding garments of oblivion.

Even death, which the ego fears is the ultimate loss of identity, is understood as a positive transformation.  The foundation underlying and supporting her hope is an intuition of the presence and love of God.  In “Song,” in the final lines of the book, she refers to the singing of the black hole:


of love


on the shores

of a great silence

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness is one of the most impressive books of poetry I have read in recent years.  It is refreshing to read poems with depth, whose complexities reward rather than frustrate.  This is a volume I shall reread many times.















[A Deep but Dazzling Darkness, Poems by Constance Rowell Mastores (San Francisco: Blue Light Press) 72 pp., $15.95]