In the Elegaic Mode
- Christopher Wiseman (Author)
Crossing the Salt Flats. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Helwig (Author)
Telling Stories. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Glen Sorestad (Author)
Today I Belong To Agnes. Ekstasis Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Douglas Lochhead (Author)
Weathers: Poems New and Selected. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Milton
The journey back dominates this grouping of poetry volumes, whether it be the return to poems from the past in the Lochhead and Helwig volumes, or the return to homelands and parents in Wiseman and Sorestad. The poems of Christopher Wiseman’s Crossing the Salt Flats represent variations on the theme of coming to terms with a rapidly receding past. For Wiseman, this past is personal, familial and, on few occasions, cultural. The collection is shot through with the nostalgia of a middle-aged Canadian for his British boyhood. The salt flats of the title poem serve as his metaphor for memory: “We’ve read about wagon tracks near here/Still fresh after a hundred and fifty years.” The wagon tracks are the remaining traces of earlier journeys left etched on the landscape. The second important motif in Wiseman’s collection is the journey, often the journey back to places which feature in the personal or shared past.
Nostalgic journeys take the poet to familiar places from a lost past: old school yards, dance halls, the home of a former piano teacher. A return journey to Britain takes him to the graves of his grandparents and his father. He reclaims the heroes and the books of his childhood. Yet the familiarity of things can be overwhelmed at times by the randomness of memory and by the mature perspective re-evaluating his youthful perceptions. He wonders why he remembers the dull alto sax player in the band from his church hall dance days: “Because I can see your face/Up there as you played—it’s never left me./Because life’s never been like that again,/So urgent, so important, with that steady/ And steadying beat.” So too, memories of parents are revisited and revised from the mature perspective of the poet’s own parenthood. The sonnet “Departure Gate” connects the poet’s experience of seeing his son off at the airport with his own earlier departure from his own father. The recognitions and re-evaluations emphasize the poignancy of time passing.
Wiseman demonstrates his commitment to and facility with standard formal models (including the villanelle and the rondel), but he balances poignancy and form inconsistently. The octave of “Departure Gate” deftly explores the speaker’s moment of parting from his son, while the sestet develops the generational parallel. Yet in “The Visitors,” the poet’s commitment to rhyme creates hesitations in the poignant description of his return to his father’s grave. Perhaps his least successful efforts are his rhyming couplets in “The Duchess Takes the Waters, 1732” and “Not My Department.” The latter poem fires a volley in the direction of contemporary theory-influenced colleagues (“Theorists, post-feminists and more”) who “will never be forgiven/For reducing people more and more/And using poetry as a whore.” The second part of the poem, parodying language poetry with its disaffection for upper case letters, idiosyncratic word spacing, abbreviated spellings and inclusive back slashes, blames those colleagues for reducing to tears students who prefer novels and poems. I seem to recall from my undergraduate days students reduced to similar frustration by Chaucer, Dryden, and Carlyle. Plus ça change . . .
I find Glen Sorestad’s Today I Belong to Agnes more consistently satisfying despite its difficult subject: observing an elderly mother as she is moved into a care facility where she will ultimately die. Sorestad handles the tricky task with aplomb by focusing on material details and allowing the experience to speak for itself. Only rarely does he veer into broad attempts to explain. He also resists the temptation to emphasize his own grieving and frustration as though recognizing that to do so would be to appropriate her story for selfish ends. The result is a dignified and poignant examination of his mother’s last days:
Some days I can see
perceptible changes in Mother,
or in one of her companions:
a tangible faltering of speech,
a sudden memory gap,
an unsteadiness that wasn’t
there the day before.
Sorestad describes events without embellishment, knowing full well that elaboration is not necessary. For those of us who have experienced such moments, not much more need be said.
The collection follows an episodic narrative of the progress of his mother’s final days from the point at which she is moved into a care facility, through her time there up to the “stroke that is the beginning of the end” and the eventual death. Throughout, Sorestad carefully records the experience of engaging not only with his mother, but with the other women in the same facility. On occasion, though he comes to visit his mother, he spends time with others, the Agnes of the title, for instance. The specificity of each experience contributes to the poignant realism of the whole. No woman is made to be exemplary, and so the variety of experience is maintained.
A similar specificity marks Douglas Lochhead’s poetry as it appears in Weathers: Poems New and Selected. This selection covers a 15-year period in Lochhead’s writing career, a period that reflects the experienced poet in full control of his style. Lochhead’s style is marked by an almost imagistic spareness that emphasizes the emotional impact of the elegiac collage “Black Festival,” a poem about the illness and death of his wife. The poem collects moments of searing intensity, fear, anguish, and powerlessness in the face of inevitable death. There is a synergy to the collage that transforms each individual section; words that might seem slight out of this context take on a radiance from within the emotional context.
There are also, as a reader of Lochhead might well expect, poems deeply evocative of place, built again on an intense vision of the detail, but balanced with a sense of the history of the lived place and the human geography. Lochhead’s vision is omnivorous as is suggested by the brief poem “Everything is” which might be, in his own style, a manifesto:
sure, sure you understand.
everything is poetry.
The collection is also distinguished by editor David Creelman’s introductory essay providing an overview of Lochhead’s work.
David Helwig’s collection Telling Stories focuses more on a communally shared history rather than the personal histories of Wiseman, Lochhead and Sorestad. Telling Stories collects and re-releases a variety of poems engaging with historical subject matter ranging from the biblical history of King David through a story drawn from 19th century myth popularizer Thomas Bulfinch, ”The Boy Inventor.” But the book is worthy of attention for the mere fact that it recirculates Helwig’s multi-voiced historical narrative Atlantic Crossings.
The poem explores four episodes in the history of European immigration to the new world. The first is narrated by a member of St. Brendan’s company, the second by a European slaver, the third by Christopher Columbus on his journey to Jamaica, and the fourth by a Viking widow transplated to Vinland. Although perhaps much has been written and thought on colonial issues since Helwig composed this poem in the 1970s, there is an imaginativeness to his interweaving of centric and ex-centric voices that invites insight.
- Encountering the Other by Mary Jean Green
Books reviewed: Writing in the Feminine in French and English Canada: A Question of Ethics by Marie Carrière and Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession by Rosemary Sullivan
- New Canadian Anthologies by Alexis Kienlen
Books reviewed: Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writing by Elsie Neufeld, New American Writing 23 by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover, and The Journey Prize Stories 18 by Steven Galloway, Zsuzsi Gartner, and Annabel Lyon
- Art of Translation by Tanis Macdonald
Books reviewed: Volta by Susan Gillis, Colville's People by Carol Malyon, and From Dark Horse Road by Ellen McGinn
- Painful Transitions by Ryan J. Cox
Books reviewed: Meniscus by Shane Neilson, Path of Descent and Devotion by Ilya Tourtidis, The Fly in Autumn by David Zieroth, and The Last House by Michael Kenyon
- Poètes en cage by Vincent Desroches
Books reviewed: Histoire de la nuit by Elias Letelier-Ruz and Bienvenue dans mon cauchemar by Marie Gagnon
MLA: Milton, Paul. In the Elegaic Mode. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #185 (Summer 2005), (Stratton, Compton, Morra, Wylie, Gordon). (pg. 192 - 194)
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