Attending to Tensions
- Nelson Ball (Author)
At the Edge of the Frog Pond. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Patrick Lane (Author)
Go Leaving Strange. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter Trower (Author)
Haunted Hills & Hanging Valleys: Selected Poems 1969-2004. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Travis V. Mason
On the page and in the ear these three collections are as different as the landscapes of British Columbia’s coast mountains, Saskatchewan’s interior plains, and Southern Ontario’s Niagara escarpment. That is not to say each book corresponds to one landscape. But to open Nelson Ball’s At the Edge of the Frog Pond and Patrick Lane’s Go Leaving Strange at random, for example, is to visit two vastly different places.
Granted, as all landscapes have certain shared characteristics, these books share an interest in the natural or the wild side of life, albeit in different ways. The poems in Ball’s latest collection express, as so many of his earlier works do, keen observation of the natural world tightly wrought and sparsely told. Consider the collection’s opening and indicative poem, “Heron”:
Accurate though this observation might be, after the twentieth such poem one begins to
tire of the sparseness, longing for reflection, philosophy, metaphor. The novelty does not so much wear off as the power of acute observation fails to sustain itself (or the reader). Indeed, once the poem’s titles become longer than the poems themselves—cf. “An old frog leads a young frog into the pond”: “pplopp // plip”—they seem no longer to be about the edge of anything. Individual poems have the potential to move a reader with seemingly little effort; accumulated, they have a tendency to sharpen one’s attention to a point too fine to be of any real significance.
In stark contrast to Ball’s tentative reports on the exterior world, Go Leaving Strange seems robustly and decidedly interior. Lane’s verse—especially in the first section, “After,”—is thick and dark. With lines as long as any Whitman penned, Lane writes of memories of war, of stories of childhood shared across a table in the Okanagan, of the names of weeds and birds:
There are these living things, and they are rare now and not to be seen
except for the careful looking in what little is left of that desert place. And I
list them here in a kind of breathing, the vesper sparrow, the saw-whet owl,
and the western meadowlark, and the northern scorpion and the western . . .
Lane’s lines lead the reader, eventually, out of the ordered fecundity of exterior “living things” and into an interior wilderness in the second section, titled “The Addiction Poems.” Here the observer becomes the observed; the speaking “I” slips uneasily into a “you” that either implicates readers in an addict’s illicit, carnal activities or marks a shift in the speaker’s psychological state (or both):
You watch from the beanbag, careful, thinking
there’s a way out, push the baby in the drawer,
glad to see it’s still alive, feet like little frogs
rising out of the smell of its only life.
Unfortunately, the second-person perspective also holds readers at a distance that only
actual experience could possibly transgress.
Experience in Peter Trower’s poetry has always been contained in the language, the concise ordinariness of compound terms taken from 22 years logging the BC coast (e.g., whistlepunk, bullpuncher, spiderscrawl, millionglitter, and stumpslopes). Haunted Hills & Hanging Valleys, Selected Poems 1969-2004 offers a satisfying introduction to the work of a writer who has never achieved the status of, say, an Al Purdy or a Patrick Lane. There is a tension in Trower’s poetry between the gravity (“Ammonia Fumes,” “Hell’s Gate,” “In the Gully”) and levity (“The Lowest-Paid Job in the Woods,” “Outhouse,” “Kisses in the Whiskey”) of manual labour; between the daily dangers and the tall tales that make the work bearable; between the socio-economic realities that impel a man into the logging profession in the first place and the environmental degradation he helps inflict this year and next, when
the saws will yammer their nagging dirge,
the donkeys will pull the corpses,
the land will be hammered to stumps and ruin.
The collection suggests elegy without nostalgia or condemnation; call it awareness of the other-than-human checked with a wariness of the all-too-human. The poet, as Trower writes in “Through the Apricot Air,” communicates this tension while “his mind swings erratically between micro and macrocosm / [and] he studies the eccentric comings and going of house finches.”
Each of these collections in some way attends to tensions that can turn anything into poetry, whether it’s a frog hopping into a pond, an addict coming to terms with his problem, or dead trees on a hillside that a logger refers to as “goosequill snags.”
- On Life, Love and Cats by Heather Sanderson
Books reviewed: White Madness by Alden A. Nowlan and Selected Poems by Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, and Alden A. Nowlan
- Inside the Darkness by Joan Crate
Books reviewed: The Blue Hour of the Day by Lorna Crozier
- Alone with the Memory of Everyday by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: The Baldwins by Serge Lamothe, Sleeping on the Moon by Sylvia Adams, and Moving Day by Terence Young
- Poésie québecoise et canadienne-anglaise by R. Mésavage
Books reviewed: Souffle d'eau by France Tremblay and Contre-taille: Poèmes choisis de vingt-cinq auteurs canadiens-anglais by Pierre Desruisseaux
- Mine Not Mine by Robert Stanton
Books reviewed: Mine by Stephen Collis, Sledgehammer by John MacKenzie, and The Asthmatic Glassblower and other poems by Billeh Nickerson
MLA: Mason, Travis V. Attending to Tensions. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 158 - 159)
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