Tasting this Place
- Sasenarine Persaud (Author)
In a Boston Night. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Fred Wah (Author)
is a door. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- E. D. Blodgett (Author)
Poems for a Small Park. Athabasca University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gillian Jerome (Author)
Red Nest. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Emily Wall
These four books give us the rich and complex tastes of particular places: Persaud gives us a Boston suburb juxtaposed with a South American homeland; Wah offers slices of Mexico, Vancouver, Thailand, and Laos; Blodgett sketches the outlines of a city park in Alberta; Jerome gives us the East Side of Vancouver with its condoms and dragons. All four poets strive to give us the rich flavors of these places, and explore what the idea of place means in terms of self-location.
Persuad’s poems are delicious on the tongue: Honeyed milk and kiskadees. Galub jamuns soaked in red wine. in XVI: The Flame of Shiva—a Phallus?” and “Boston Cheek”. There is an under-tongue taste of native language that the speaker—and now the reader—longs to hold in the mouth. On the plate, we have Brookline. This town/suburb becomes a strange land he helps us taste in its strangeness—the way the trees bud, the way snow compacts to ice. The speaker is living in exile and the poems are poems of displacement. Persaud avoids the typical ex-pat approaches of nostalgia for homeland or gratefulness for the new home. One of the greatest strengths of these poems, especially as a book of exile, is that Persaud shows us what’s not there—no mother, no sweet cookie to end the meal, no satiety for the speaker. As we read through the book there is a growing tension in the spaces between the images. This is longing without nostalgia. The poet is also adept at balancing—the dryness of daily life, the bitterness of exile, and the sweetness of memory: “turmeric corn, lime peas, flaky roti, curried Yukon, / Basmati—she went to London—rice, baked turkey— / enough, enough, you ass, shut down the computer” (“Thanksgiving”). Each poem, held on the tongue, tastes true—he’s one of those rare poets who gets the recipe of humanness exactly right.
Fred Wah’s poem “Mr. In-Between” ends “how to find the door / to stand in the way / just be there Mr. In-Between” and this gives us a feel for the poems in the book. While the other three books are rooted in place, Wah’s book is about standing in the doorway of many places. We press our ear to the door and hear a cacophony of languages, of songs, of voices coming through from the other side. Both the gift and the frustration of this book is our inability to walk through that door. Like Persaud, Wah explores the landscape of the exile: “From the summit / of myself I was on the other side, / part of the exclusion act” (“Count”). Wah avoids the temptation to simplify the complex nature of this dislocation . . . but in dislocating the reader, he also keeps us outside. He counters that, perhaps, with sound: Wah’s poems sing: “Being where / overwhelming scars / screams and frogs / attention to the mud/of mind embroidered shy” (“Evening before 30 quiet”). But while there is a pleasure in this sound, there is a dizziness to it too. These poems spin—we want to put our finger out and stop the record, just for a moment. Ultimately we are tantalized, but in the end Wah doesn’t give us anything that rings in the ears for days after reading.
E. D. Blodget’s poems strive for stillness. The book reads like a meditation—a quiet moment in a yoga studio, or a walk through the park at sunrise—refreshing, but also temporal. What the poems are missing is dialogue—we have no real sense of a conversation with the poet, or of a conversation with the self. The poems are almost pure image, but unlike many contemporary haiku, which they resemble in other ways, they don’t take surprising turns or use the final line to snap us awake. Instead, they lull us: “reaching with longing for / the other bank that rose / forever beyond their grasp” (“Gifts of a River”). Lines like this make us pause . . . but ultimately move on again, looking for the next plaque, the next poem. The best moments are the metaphorical surprises: “generations of / the sun standing in sheaves” (“Dreams of a City”). These small moments of perfection resonate in our ears. The rest of the poems provide a moment of quiet, but nothing we’d remember after leaving the park, and returning to the world.
Gillian Jerome’s poems are a visual feast. A reader could stay on one page of the book for hours at a time, tasting the flavors of the images: “People pluck banjos and guitars, drink beer in brown bottles / That turn yellow when they hold them up to the sun” (“Untitled”). Like Blodgett and Persaud, hers is a book of place. One of Jerome’s gifts is image juxtaposing while crafting the landscape of East Vancouver. We have a constant shifting of sand, and a hundred surprising leaps and connections: “The song of our liturgy, the song of the answering machine” (“Tenement Song”). Another notable technique is her ability to spin a poem out into the dream world, even into the surreal, and then know exactly when to reel it back in. “Constellation” does this perfectly—we inhabit the real world of the poem enough to plant our feet, and then can follow our dream selves into the landscape of the heart without getting lost.
Reading these poets together is like sitting down to a feast of the newest Canadian poetry. Each gives us a taste of these landscapes, and while some dishes are more satisfying than others, it’s delightful to sit at this richly laden table.
- Recent Western Writing by Nicholas Bradley
Books reviewed: Pye-Dogs by Tammy Armstrong and George McWhirter, Understories by Marc Ory, River of Gold by Anusree Roy, and Hooker & Brown by Shirley Mahood and David Yee
- Writing In The Dark by Leslie Stark
Books reviewed: The Monster Trilogy by RM Vaughan, Seeing Red by Dennis Cooley, and Now You Care by Di Brandt
- Kinetic Creations by Renate Eigenbrod
Books reviewed: What the Small Day Cannot Hold by Susan Musgrave and Human Bodies: New and Collected Poems 1987-1999 by Marilyn Bowering
- Lyric Translations by Janet Neigh
Books reviewed: God of Missed Connections by Elizabeth Bachinsky, Joy is so Exhausting by Susan Holbrook, m-Talá by Chus Pato, and The Rose Concordance by Angela Carr
- Poésie francophone by René Brisebois
Books reviewed: Les Silences immoblies by Christian Violy, Bleu sur Blanc by Marguerite Andersen, and dieu sait quoi by Pierre Ouellet
MLA: Wall, Emily. Tasting this Place. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 175 - 176)
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