The Reaching of the Poetic Field
- Stephen Guppy (Author)
Blind Date with the Angel: The Diane Arbus Poems. Ekstasis Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Janice Kulyk Keefer (Author)
Marrying the Sea. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barbara Klar (Author)
The Blue Field. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Karen Mulhallen
These three books provide a glimpse of the state of poetry in English Canada; each is a strong collection, one by an accomplished writer at mid-career, and each exhibits quite different poetic gifts from the others. Lyric poetry, prose poetry, political poetry, the dramatic monologue, and the gnomic fable are all well represented, as they are in the English Canadian poetry community at large. The flowering of readings and performance over the last decade and a half, and the institutional support for this phenomenon, has allowed a remarkable development of new voices quite out of proportion to the reading population. We have become a country of poets in search of an audience. While our novelists are easily exportable, our poets in a sense remain on the margin. And so the accomplished poet in search of auditors frequently turns to prose narrative, the poetry if not abandoned at least temporarily set aside. Of course, not all eminent Canadian novelists have begun as poets, but the names of Jane Urquhart, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje remind us of just how many writers did. While there is very little relationship between the two practices, a writer is nonetheless a writer, and the brain is a large field.
Janice Kulyk Keefer’s career is already distinguished by her critical talent—she has published books on maritime fiction and on Mavis Gallant—and by her skill as a fiction writer. Her novel The Green Library was recently nominated for a Governor-General’s award. Marrying the Sea is her second poetry collection, and it is substantial. Section one, "Sacra Conversazione," features the poetry of memory: in her case, a poetry of memory filtered through history. There is a beauty of image in these poems, the rough tongue of a horse on a child’s outstretched palm, which transforms them from history into historical lyric.
Section two, "Sirens’ Songs," continues the historical lyric but focuses female characters. These poems of character arise from paintings, myth, folktale and history. The voice is ironic, witty, even sentimental. The final superb sequence, "Isle of Demons," is a major work on its own, a deeply moving exploration of a young seventeenth-century French noblewoman abandoned on a small island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence after forming a liaison with a young officer on her voyage out:
I have not come this far
to hear birds sing. Force from me
strict music—teach me to heal
with bitter herbs, till they lick
Your honey from my hands.
The final and titular section, "Marrying the Sea," is the weakest and seems to me to detract from the focus of this collection. It consists of poems on Reefer’s marriage; it is dedicated to her husband and tends to the confessional, without the poignancy of the other sections. It would be better in a separate volume where it could achieve a voice untrammelled by the intellectual passion of the other poems in this particular collection. However, there are treasures here too, such as "Jealous," a superb poem on love and jealousy, with an enviable command of psalmic structure. And Reefer’s final poem, "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," provides a fitting resolution to this outstanding collection:
We are already sailing back to them
and we are setting out, never
to return. We have vanished,
and can still be seen by anyone
looking out for us
with the eyes of love.
Stephen Guppy’s Blind Date with the Angel: The Diane Arbus Poems is a collection of dramatic monologues. Although only his second book, it is captivating and crackles with insights on its subject. The images of Diane Arbus’s photographs have become commonplaces, as have the details of her life on the edge, but as Guppy enters into those very images, revealing their heart, he also enters into the heart of the photographer and her times. Part One, "In Available Light," begins with a chronology which is in some ways the least successful section, echoing the voice of Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie and various Ginsberg poems. Part Two explores nine specific frames, and opens with the searing "A Flower-Girl at a Wedding":
All alone, I remain
on the edge of my childhood
my bouquet of wilting daisies thrust
toward the photographer’s camera,
my small toes curled like molluscs
in the shells of Mama’s pumps.
The "Albino Sword Swallower," which follows, never misses in rhythm and image. And "A Woman in a Bird Mask" tears open the middle class subterfuges that Arbus herself probed. Part Three, "Blind Date with the Angel," brings the reader to the wider import of Arbus’s story, the implications of image making itself:
I withdrew into the necessary
silence of my darkroom, secure
in the vague suspicion that
Art, the poor man’s absolute
is adequate justification
for whatever crimes the heart commits—
My philosophy has always been
assault with a deadly weapon.
Blind Date with the Angel is a bravura performance.
The Blue field by Barbara Klar ranges from tight images embedded in gnomic pronouncement to inappropriate non-poetic prose diary and document. A tighter editorial selection was needed here. When these poems are good they are very good, and the clarity and density, the packed quality, of her imagery, although arising from Klar’s distinct voice, reminds one of Anne Michaels’s first book, The Weight of Oranges. Klar’s tendency to fable is clear in the brief poem "One Ton" where the opening word becomes exemplum:
Country, you have shown me the crying
widow at the auction, her husband’s red
’49 Fargo, once, twice, sold
Cold, you will have me love
the space between old women, heavy
as the news of death in winter.
Her didactic strategy is epitomized in "The Woodcutter," which unfolds in eight numbered sections, each of which is called "Lesson." Klar does have a way with titles— "Four Words For My Body," "The Night of Told Secrets"—but the poems don’t always live up to these evocative beginnings. Light and dark, thaw and water, sky and earth dominate her imagery, creating coherence.
The collection’s title comes from her poem "Body of Many Blue Wings," itself inspired by a line in Gwendolyn MacEwen. In it, we can see the poet’s strength, the talent for wresting metaphysical implications from the specific:
We have fallen through the year
to where the sky scatters
flowers and a rope of suns
burns on the tree west of us. Or
it snows and we hang up
white and gold. Two ways
of seeing everything. Darkness
as darkness or darkness as light. . . .
We witness her delicate drawing out of parallel worlds.
- Good, But Not So Pretty by Sonnet L'Abbé
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- Water and Bone Museum by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Musée de l'os et de l'eau by Nicole Brossard
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MLA: Mulhallen, Karen. The Reaching of the Poetic Field. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #166 (Autumn 2000), Women & Poetry. (pg. 175 - 177)
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