Poet on Point
- Robert Bringhurst (Author)
Ursa Major. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Brian Henderson
For the world itself can be called a myth in that bodies and things appear in it, while souls and spirits are hidden in it. –Sallustius< br/>
What would we be if the gods weren’t always meddling with us? Wouldn’t things be plainer, simpler? As it is even animals can be gods if you know how to look. Bringhurst is one who looks with language and with type. Ursa Major is a handsome book in a conservative way — it won the 2003 Alcuin Design award for poetry — but it is poetry in a rather special context. The work was commissioned by New Dance Horizons and first performed on March 11, 2002, but in this form is the trace, a kind of Labanotation, for the voices of its performance. But it’s lonely without the music and the movement that would have accompanied it. There should really be a DVD to bring it to life.
The work is a masque for dancing in 5 scenes with an excellent contextualizing and perceptive Afterword (as Part III of the book) by Peter Sanger. It retells two myths of the bear constellations using a Cree story, as told by Kâ-kîsikâw-pîhtokêw to Leonard Bloomfield in 1925, and Ovid’s metamorphosis. Both stories are spoken in various polyphonic ways by the children of the original tellers, so Ursa is partly about ownership and inheritance. It’s also about the transformations of desire — betrayal, bitterness, loss, passion, yearning — so central to myths (transformations of gods and humans to animals and vice versa and living creatures to shiny bits of firmament).
Bringhurst uses both translations and original languages to lend a radical hybridity to the text: Latin, Greek, Cree in both romanized and syllabic forms and English. Part I displays the voices consecutively as a form of playscript for ease of reading, while Part II is a voice map (mapping is a favourite Bringhurst device) which braids the voices as they would intertwine with each other in the polyphony of performance. This is the core of the book and the most visually appealing: four languages, three alphabets, three typefaces (plus italic), two colours of ink (plus two screens of them) pattern the page. Interesting musical devices are also used such as retrograde recitation where words are spoken in reverse order from their first appearance. However, none of the sonic or visual effects owes anything to the wild and heady experiments in these areas by Dada or Concrete poets; everything feels quite calculated, linear, almost constrained.
Not that there are not beautiful places and passages, but affect is too dependent on the performance that has vanished, only leaving its trace (albeit re-imagined), only its appearance behind. Only the type appears on point; the dance has vanished; the performance space has been transformed. But so must a book of the performance be.
What, for instance, is poetry doing anyway, and Bringhurst’s poetry at its best, as it scatters ash and spark onto the page of sky, if not appearance catching as it vanishes, and these vanishing stories of the bear and of transformation remind us that
Humans can eat and sleep with the gods,
and bear their children, Still, they can be just a breath a way
from being rocks and trees and wolves and deer
and bears and stars and darkness. Just a breath away
from deathlessness, and just a breath away
from all that darkness in between the stars.
- En état d'incandescence by Réjean Beaudoin
Books reviewed: En longues rivières cachées by Annick Perrot-Bishop, Femme au profil d'arbre by Annick Perrot-Bishop, and Woman Arborescent by Neil B. Bishop and Annick Perrot-Bishop
- In Praise of the Left Hand by Cedric May
Books reviewed: Le Visage des mots by Jean Royer, Nous sommes en alarme by Louise Cotnoir, and Nos Corps habitables by Jean Royer
- Vocations: First Nations Voices by Madelaine Jacobs
Books reviewed: she walks for days inside a thousand eyes: a two-spirit story by Sharron Proulx-Turner, Skin Like Mine by Garry Gottfriedson, and The Lil'wat World of Charlie Mack by Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy
- Language Movements by Aaron Giovannone
Books reviewed: Rental Van by Clint Burnham, yes / no by Dennis Lee, Expressway by Sina Queyras, and Mosaic Orpheus by Peter Dale Scott
- Discursive Adaptations by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Reaching for the Clear: The Poetry of Rhys Savarin by David Solway, Something Blue and Flying Upwards: New and Selected Poems by Roger Nash, and A Dirge for My Daughter: Poems by Frederick Philip Grove and Klaus Martens
MLA: Henderson, Brian. Poet on Point. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 117 - 118)
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