A Range of Experience
- Pat Jasper (Author)
Background Music. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Méira Cook (Author)
Toward a Catalogue of Falling. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kathleen O'Donnell
These two recent publications by Pat Jasper and Méira Cook produce quite different effects. Background Music consists of poems that often reflect the methods and structures of prose narrative. In Méira Cook’s volume, prose poems introduced among the lyrics still have the techniques, occasional abstruseness, and allusiveness of poetry. Cook’s pieces require the reader’s intellectual and sensuous cooperation to achieve their impact, while Jasper’s calls on his/her sympathy and understanding.
The subjects of Background Music range over many personal experiences; the theme of abuse and incest gains momentum in the second and third sections of the book. Epigraphs selected for the opening of the volume and for each of its sections emphasize, with increasing darkness, the undi-minished effects on life of early, unforgotten wrongs. The perennial questions of reasons for afflictions and punishments are probed in "The Same Old Story" by students who finally learn "to turn fear into acceptance." Acceptance may be appreciated through the motif of music in "Water Music," "Concerto for the Left Hand," and "Missa Solemnis/Hofburg Chapel, Vienna." In this poem, the boy soprano’s "high clear voice/and the white lilies" were "the only/thing pure and wholly alive." Even this poem has a sad undertone when the soprano voice "stirs up memories/of lost innocence."
Adopting the poet-daughter’s necessarily limited perspective, the poems of the second section increasingly refer to the mother who was present in "Post Partum," "Birth Rites," and "My Mother at Sixty" of the first section. "Making sense of landscape," the central poem of the second section of the book, describes the mother’s reaction to the abuse of her daughter: "My mother is out of the room." The things that her mother ignores receive blatant expression in "He Loves Me/He Loves Me Not," a monologue describing the younger daughter’s experience of her father’s perversion.
"Revising the Past" in the third section describes the younger sister: "She made us scrape away/the first layer of paint to find/the darker landscape underneath." In this "darker landscape" unfortunately exists the fear of generational repetition: "My son/is my father all over again." Time brings healing and comfort but never obliteration. The concepts of forgiveness and redemption are not introduced. The students in "The Same old Story" doubted that their instructor believed in resurrection and salvation.
Background Music does not suggest that the abuse of the father is overcome. It offers a complaint not only about the father but also about the non-intervention of the mother. The mother was "hovering in the background, like the music/on the radio as I did my homework." She had her "eye cocked/for the closed door, the stirrings in the night, as she sprinkled/the ironing." Jasper has portrayed the daughter’s view of the mother who could have intervened but did not prevent the crime.
Instead of the dramatic quality (characters and actions) of Jasper’s book/Cook’s Toward a Catalogue ofFallinghas sections of lyrics, prose poems and epigrams loosely associated with the dominant image of falling. The main image is developed in lyrics about Icarus, water falls, a fall from grace, falling in love, accidental falls, the fall of Pompeii, falling asleep, and a rain fall. The range of topics allows the author to wander around and reproduce the image of falling until it becomes a statement of gravity, or a view of the human condition.
Some of the references to the act of falling give rise to most ingenious poetic comments. "Diptych I" contains the lines
Poor Icarus who suffered from hubris and oedipus in equal measure, now there is a fall for you. Imagine wanting to please daddy and snub god at the same time.
"Toward a Catalogue of Falling" alludes to the eruption of Vesuvius and the fall of Pompeii:
Who ran fastest on that day who stayed behind to help the old? Pliny the younger tells how day fell backwards into night. Another fall.
Throughout the book there is an underlying lament for the suffering through all space and all time. For instance, "The Fallen Helen Here" talks about bystanders’ response to suffering.
A woman falls
in the street you reach to help she flinches mistrust rheuming her eyes and her stockings also are torn, we do not touch the fallen here.
To help the fallen would require a physical descent or fall by the helper. Caution is in order against the fall that will not help, or that may harm. In faraway country, "Beggers gather, english/guide very good very little money do not/fall for it." A salutary answer to human suffering lies in the word, in language and poetry.
Words branched and antlered fall to furrow two by two, it was the catalogue that arked them in the end
Against the grind of Ararat. No loss of creatures fossilled in print not gone if one slant letter arched in sky remains.
Cook does not ignore the reality of crime masked as play. "Fairytales From the Old Country" contains this crime: "once upon a time a fond uncle stooped to greet his favourite niece hallo my darling he swung her into the air by the neck hallo my darling until she died."
Masked with or alleviated by the forms of fairytale, narrative, epigram, or prose poem, the horror of human suffering underlies the experiences of these poems. The author’s main theme is stated in the Hebrew epigraph of the book. It may be translated as "if I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I?"
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MLA: O'Donnell, Kathleen. A Range of Experience. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 156 - 158)
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