Cause for Inspiration
- Elise Partridge (Author)
Chameleon Hours. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barbara Nickel (Author)
Domain. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Erín Moure (Author)
O Cadoiro. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Fred Wah (Author)
Sentenced to Light. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein
The four books under review demonstrate the diversity of Canadian poetry being written today and give much cause for rejoicing. Roughly what is at stake in each of these documents of artistic delineation is the course for inspiration and the continuous journey to locate ever more appropriate vehicles for the release of our most passionate inner convictions.
Elise Partridge seems like a veteran of the poetry game, though Chameleon Hours is only her second collection. She is a force that Canadians cannot afford to ignore any longer. Such is clear from the extolments by Robert Pinsky of Partridge's poetry in national American newspaper columns. Many of Partridge's poems from this collection have been previously published in the best venues here as well as abroad, in the US and the UK-and as will be made clear-with reason.
Throughout this volume where Partridge uses poetry to work through, enable, and explain her own thoughts on life, death, and illness and come to terms with her own battle with cancer, there is a remarkable maintenance of equilibrium. The careful selection of material ensures the prepossession toward the human need for stability, envisioned or embodied for Partridge in the use of poetic form. There can never be any question in this volume of Partridge's labour, her determination of will, the fastening of the will to the poet's task. And together with an incredible distinction of craftsmanship, of mastery and devotion to the form, Partridge's poetry also features the successful integration of demotic language, such that these poems can be enjoyed both for their use of form and for their enjoyment as ordinary life-affirming poems. In "Crux," an exemplary poem in the collection, "the seamless weave of the spider's web" becomes a metaphor for Partridge's practising of her art. She contemplates "sweeping down to save the spider teetering on the edge," the life of the spider tied irrevocably to portentousness, a symbol of luck as the role of saviour in the life of David in the Bible-and for the speaker we must presume as well:
Self-possessed, idling, clam
riding out every quiver
the spider perched at the rim.
What should the witness do?
Should I, like God, swoop down,
with capable hands arrange
some culpable mercy?
Or not intervene (like Him)?
It would seem that Partridge has found the perfect voice for chronicling the most difficult subject matter.
Again and even more so in Erin Mouré's O Cadoiro do we experience the refreshing complement of a poet infinitely rooted to her subject. Where Mouré's project of "translating" "medieval Iberian songbooks, written in Galician-Portuguese," might seem dry and academic, she does an admirable job winning readers by performing an amicable turn for these "forgotten classics"-much as Paul Muldoon has done for Irish language translation-drawing out new material and taking liberties with translation for the brokering of new inventiveness in poetry translation. Where Mouré's imagination and word profusion tend to run away with her as in her postface on her critical approach to the project-"They are fount for my own inventions and coalects, which are but small plaints rustlings, a ruxarruxe, an altermundismo or ‘otherworld-wantingness'" and so on-she has found a voice in this alternative pre-modern lyric tradition, of recording beautiful Galician cavatinas and making her poetry matter most.
All of these poems are untitled but numbered with original authorial attributions. This one is by Ayras Nunes Clerigo: "Does a flower sleep? / Does a branch, touched once by the bird, tremble? / I wish at times I could be touched by / sleep, that I could // forget[.]" Most interesting is the "improvised" spelling and unusual punctuation that give these poems the sense of being a part of a larger "work in progress."
Fred Wah's Sentenced to Light focuses not on the inspiration found in older poetic traditions but on the hidden or unspoken language implicit in visual media. All of the poems in this collection in one sense or another are countenanced or precipitated by the visual image and relish in the interconnectedness or the evolving dialogue between word and image as experienced uniquely on the page. Many of these "projects" are fascinating, provocative, even inspiring, and are best read perhaps as "gedanken-experiments."
Particularly stimulating is the project "Sentenced to Light," a series of prose-poem sentences that write or rewrite the language of the spaces "enclosed" or "disclosed" in the Mexican photography of Eric Jervaise. This example gives a good sense of Wah's way of working: "Yours faithfully waits for a verb to fall graze grampa skin to touch or curb the chord guilty of a broken string Christ it's true five fingers bleeding in the dark / room of history always after the harsh reminder that Attentamente! signs off until the continuous will have been stopped for the old man's idea to be perfect." Even in this example one has the sense of Wah's effort to catch inspiration in its everydayness at its most raw and vital.
Barbara Nickel's Domain is perhaps the most removed of the collections under review, though you wouldn't know it from the titles of the poems in the volume. The collection is divided into sequences entitled "Master Bedroom," "Girl's Room," "Living Room," "Utility Room," "Kitchen," "Boy's Room," and "Storage Room." All of this sounds very familiar, but it is perhaps the intensely personal nature of the narratives that Nickel discloses in this volume that will both repel and attract readers in equal measure. There is a real eeriness and starkness to her visuals that while somewhat difficult to get in to, reverberate in memory. "Climbing" is certainly a poem that will remind many of Gregory Orr's own famous/infamous mordant poem "A Litany":
My sister fracturing a slope of snow
with her fall. Minutes ago her bone was whole:
we wanted to summit. X-rays won't show
tips white and distant, afternoon-lit. Her howl.
The helicopter took her. I was left
holding a sleeve. Alone, I folded up
the sky, she descended to stone; lifting
her wrist, impossible at first. Nerve-sleep.
Then speaks in twitches. I can feel the ridge
under skin of metal that will outlive her,
see the summer night she wakes and rides
the tingle of a healing line, the scar
she's climbing with a fingertip to numb
terrain, receding down the slope again.
- Culturally Bound Illness by Anna Cooper
Books reviewed: Gout: The Patrician Malady by Roy Porter and G.S. Rousseau, Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age by David B. Morris, and Wishbone Dance by Glen Downie
- Poets from the Island by Indran Amirthanayagam
Books reviewed: Consensual Genocide by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Gambolling with the Divine by Rienzi Cruz
- Re: Composing Biotexts by Guy Beauregard
Books reviewed: Writing the Roaming Subject: The Biotext in Canadian Literature by Joanne Saul and Diamond Grill by Fred Wah
- Unmarked Intersections by Méira Cook
Books reviewed: traffick by Rob Budde and Latent Heat by Catherine Hunter
- Lilies and Realism by Alexis Foo
Books reviewed: A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove by John Newlove, The Essential Don Coles by Don Coles, and Coal and Roses by P. K. Page
MLA: Rotstein, Jason Ranon Uri. Cause for Inspiration. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #202 (Autumn 2009), Sport and the Athletic Body. (pg. 125 - 127)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.