“Bel Canto” by Virginia Konchan

A reader rarely encounters a volume of poems where every page demands rereading, but Bel Canto (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2022) is just such a book. Virginia Konchan’s fourth full-length collection of poetry sings with the energy of a meaningful church service while simultaneously praising the secular, the cultural, and the overtly human. Employing language of faith to elevate the everyday, Bel Canto delivers a powerful picture of our present world while reflecting on the traditions, times, and people who brought us here.

Diction of finance, religion, art, and entertainment deliver a tour de force that can best be described by Emily Dickinson’s adage: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Within Bel Canto, an astute reader will encounter this mind-blown sensation again and again. At times, one has to sit back, catch a breath, and prepare for the next moment of awe, the next shekinah brightness of revelation.

One masterful aspect of Konchan’s work is her effective use of subtle rhyme and other clever devices within invented forms. Her literary prowess sneaks up on the audience, elusive until becoming epiphanic, dawning like sunlight through stained glass windows. She achieves this effect with great moments of relatable, transparent humanity: “The thought you have after the thought/ you lose is the saddest thought ever,” she writes in “Les Annees de Guerre,” one of several poems with titles appropriately from the French. Languages commonly inscribed in the marble of chapels make regular appearances, contributing to the collection’s sacred feel and lending a tone of earnest reverence to otherwise ordinary experiences.

Single lines defy readers’ expectations with extravagant depth created from usually unconsidered, even obvious assertions: “The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it,” states one line in “Addendum,” a poem wherein the speaker meditates on the nature and essence of existence. The way Konchan poetically points out what should be apparent is disarming and delightful, prompting both a forehead-smack and a smile. “Why haven’t I ever thought of that?” is a common response to many of her innovative phrases.

One measure of a poet’s success is how many lines other poets would like to “borrow” for their own work, and certainly there are a multitude in Bel Canto. Topping the list of these, however, are her remarkable last lines, which are neither bows nor bells, but fitting and final wax seals upon poems that often resemble prayers. “The soul pressed flat is matter, unsexed. / The heart pressed flat is meat,” ends “L’Heure Exquise,” one exploration of the speaker’s journey toward world-wisdom.

To summarize Konchan’s individual poems in a cursory way fails to do them proper justice. Within each, there are deep allusions to heavy and historical sources, playful digressions into overturned idioms, and satirical barbs thrown at hypocrisies and their purveyors. Like faith itself, Bel Canto can be both labyrinth and straight path, mystery and solution. And it is this paradox that makes the book so addictively remarkable. Amidst imagery of the divine is the mind’s struggle to comprehend the intangible or ethereal. Many of the speakers in these poems seem to be questing after Keats’s notion of negative capability. The reader can’t help cheering for these souls who evoke the happy frustrations of our universal journey.

Poems like “Hymnody” pair modern AI technology with ancient incantations, and familiar religious language is frequently given new life. The lyrics of “Amazing Grace” are seen alongside references to Vedic Hinduism, for example. And while these artful juxtapositions occur, Bel Canto provides an exceptional, cliché-challenging pilgrimage, one featuring introspection free from solipsism and metacognition without narcissism.

Konchan spent much of her girlhood in Florida, and tropical leisure is found even amid her cerebral and intellectual verses. Languidly Latinate, her syntax and prosody grant a chaise-lounge ease to complexity. Not every poet can infuse the serious with the casual, but many of Konchan’s poems are like a Sunshine State beach wedding – ceremony and permanence clothed in contemporary accessibility. Neither too dignified nor too reckless, her writing strikes a needed balance between formalism and free verse. Bel Canto is a lesson in poetic dexterity.

Graced with exceptional cover design and art, the book is as attractive as it is relevant. A primer for our modern age, an ode to being human, and a record of the conflict between unbelief and upbringing, Bel Canto is a lavish melody to be enjoyed repeatedly.

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