- Raymond Souster (Author)
Close to Home. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Raymond Souster (Author)
Collected Poems of Raymond Souster: Volume Eight 1991-1993. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Raymond Souster (Author)
No Sad Songs Wanted Here. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dermot McCarthy
Reading Raymond Souster’s poetry, one gets the overwhelming sense of a congenial, eminently decent, deeply empathic human being. Blessed with what might be called a mundane epiphanic imagination, an elegiac sensibility, and a perfect pitch when it comes to a natural-sounding, conversational prose, Souster is an important poet in our tradition. His turn from English to American models and aesthetics in the 1950s exemplifies the fusion of native and American influences that predominates Canadian poetry since the mid-century.
Collected Poems ... 1991-93 reprints Running Out the Clock (1991) and Riding the Long Black Horse (1993). Now in his late 70s, Souster continues to produce poems like trees do leaves; but while each is unique and seems as natural as breathing, as they pile up in these unedited editions the effect is drearily repetitive.
For many years now, Souster has been a Wordsworthian poet recollecting in tranquil retirement, working up memories into anecdotes. "Sitting in with Pigs" recaptures the precision, shapeliness and humane wit of his best work, and in "Laird’s Confectionary," he is almost Orphic in his exhumation of the lost world of his generation’s youth. When Souster gets it right, as he does in such nostalgic-narrative poems, he achieves his poetic’s highest potential, a subtle allegory of the commonplace: the kind of breath-taking and yet disturbing suggestion he developed in such early and masterful lyric miniatures as "The First Thin Ice."
Just as an elderly relative’s recollection may lead us to see a parent or place in a wholly new light, so too do Souster’s poems about pre-war West Toronto, the city’s jazz clubs, baseball on the island, his father’s youth and experiences on the Western Front, and Souster’s own childhood, adolescence, and years in the RCAF during World War II. Running Out the Clock contains a number of "Pictures from a Long-Lost World," a series he began in the 1970s as a combination of personal album and public archive. However, while "That Last Bend," about starving children in Ethiopia, is a subtly complex expression of deep anguish and even deeper mystification, the satiric bite in "Toronto Landlord, Christmas Week" is more a nip; and "Boy in the White Shirt," which describes the famous photograph of the student facing off with the tanks in Tiananmen Square, cannot displace the power of that image with its own.
The challenge for any poet, but particularly a poet of the quotidien like Souster, is to combine clarity of focus with energy of expression, and not so much to write about the thing but as if the thing itself spoke, for itself. Souster has not deviated from the project and principles he announced in early credos like "Get the Poem Outdoors," "The Lilac Poem," and "Queen Anne’s Lace"; so "Fire-Hall Parking Lot" sits on old ground:
leaving me slightly breathless
here among my tin cans and bottles,
before the unexpected miracle
of everyday things
transformed into the extraordinary,
with no explanation asked for or needed,
only price the pure joy of our surprise.
To redeem the commonplace, to show the world in the way of revelation, is a noble project with a long and honorable pedigree. But Souster’s realist poetic is often at odds with his epiphanic intentions: he sees the quotidien miraculously transformed into the extraordinary, but does not enact that transformation in the language, rhythms, and shape of the poem.
While Souster’s father dominates Riding the Long Black Horse, with "All the Long Way Home" and the poems in "Stand Down, Cover Up" forming a moving testament to the man who in many ways was the template for Souster as man and poet, in No Sad Songs Wanted Here (1995) he turns to his mother’s last days and death. He also records "The Life & Death of the Colonial Bar & Grill" and "A Local History of Chocolate." Close to Home is a wonderful Souster title, suggesting his life-long residence close to his birthplace, as well as the significance of baseball, literally and literar-ily, in that life. On the whole, it is a stronger book than No Sad Songs Wanted Here. "Last Words with My Mother" brings closure to that experience. There are more "Pictures from a Long-Lost World," dealing with such disparate items as Ned Hanlan, the Warsaw Ghetto, J.S. Woodsworth, the War of 1812, Canadian artillery in Flanders, and a duel in Toronto in 1817. And although there are yet more poems about cats and squirrels and falling leaves, birds in the trees, and even, alas, Wiarton Willie, Souster’s war remains the lodestone of his mental life. Robert Billings said that Souster’s ironic vision, "in which the best of life and the worst of life battle constantly for attention," came clear to him during the war, "when he experienced the paradox of camaraderie and attrition." That vision persists in "The Ballad of the Coca-Cola Kid," "Our Friend John," and "D-Day 43."
- 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
- Hammering in the Sky by Paul Denham
Books reviewed: Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy by Sam Solecki
- Leaves of Presence by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy by Al Purdy and Sam Solecki
- Soothsaid Verse by Tim Conley
Books reviewed: Cometology by Stephen Brockwell, Torontology by Stephen Cain, and The Invisible World Is In Decline, Book V by Bruce Whiteman
- D'un monde à l'autre by Mélanie Collado
Books reviewed: ...et la nuit by Anne-Marie Alonzo, La Pérégrin chérubinique by Jovette Marchessault, and D'en haut by R. J. Berg
MLA: McCarthy, Dermot. Long-Lost Worlds. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 181 - 182)
***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.