Two Gold Bricks
- Helen Humphreys (Author)
Anthem. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Julie Bruck (Author)
The End of Travel. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christine Wiesenthal
A past recipient of the A.M. Klein Award for Poetry, Bruck adds a very fine second volume to her debut collection, The Woman Downstairs (1993). The End of Travel takes its title from a line by Elizabeth Bishop— a poetic touchstone that generates such poems as Bruck’s "A Bus in Nova Scotia," which retraces the route of Bishop’s wrenching displacement from her childhood home, and "How The Bottom Feeders Got Language," which playfully redeploys the trope of Bishop’s "imaginary iceberg." As a border-crossing precursor, Bishop evidently embodies an appeal for the now San Francisco-based Bruck, but to the latter’s significant credit, there is nothing else obvious or predictable about the interplay of voice and place. Divided into four sections—"Dividing the Dark," "Kate’s Dress," "The Strange Familiar," and "The Bottle Picker’s Progress"—the poems in this collection frequently shuttle back and forth between the urban milieux of Montreal and San Francisco, and explore with sensitive intelligence the manifold possibilities of the title metaphor. In "Diagnosis," "the end of travel" bespeaks the imminent end of phys- . ical mobility for the diagnosed: "Some one I love will need two / strong men to lift him soon, / from his bed to a chair in the light." Similarly, in poems addressed to a dying friend, death preempts Kate’s further journey, though the dress she leaves behind holds the mold of her shape ("Kate’s Dress"). The living continue to move, but a friend’s change of address card, nonetheless, reminds the speaker of her childhood pet’s daily "end of travel."
Unlike the San Francisco of the urban landscape painter Wayne Thiebaud, Bruck’s cityscapes are usually peopled, and interestingly so. Hers is a world of colourful eccentrics, two-legged as well as four. There are those who consciously present themselves as such—a garish pair of twins whose "yellow umbrellas rise" in unison "when it rains" ("The Lucky Ones")—and those unaware of the spectacle they make, such as the hilarious parking spot scout, a "dapper man in a good suit," unselfconsciously shouting directions "into his tiny, folding phone" to bring his Camry-cruising wife to berth ("Nancy"). In "Open Reading," a novice poet’s "uncut" pain is effectively set off against the parallel solicitations of a "scrofulous flower seller," who criss-crosses Boulevard St. Laurent, "making revisions at bar / after bar, as if at last, he hoped to get it right." As the title of the collection’s final section, "The Bottle Picker’s Progress," suggests, there is a distinctive literary quality to Bruck’s poetic vision, especially her rendering of urban spaces (Dickens, Hogarth, and Washington Irving all come to mind). The echoes of literary romanticism mobilized here work well because they are at all times qualified by a sharp and wry alertness to the contemporary moment. Take, for example, the following revision of the old "Rip Van Winkle" story in "Back to the World":
At dinner last night,
a young man with a broken arm
announced he’d slept for seven years.
Something like chronic fatigue: he woke four months ago, nearly thirty—everyone else was a lawyer.
Not for a moment do we lose sight of the rushed, polluted, wireless present that some of us all too automatically inhabit, and others find alienating. For some, "there are no more surprises in the world." For Brack and her readers, surprises proliferate, even—or especially—in places where one least expects to find them: the wasteland of parking lots, a hospital cafeteria, in the "dim stairwell" where "Mrs K" regretfully packs up her life ("Small Mind"), and later, a "new neighbour" spends her day over coffee and cigarettes, pathetically attempting to solve a broken love relationship over the omnipresent "portable phone" ("One Flight Down").
The photograph on the cover of The End of Travel shows a sheared-off segment of the famous Golden Gate Bridge, projecting out like a huge, ominous diving board over open water. And it is really at such sites of emotional arrest, pause, and precipice that these poems of mooring and unmooring, cruising and driving, keep "coming back to exactly" ("What Did It"). "I am every interruption between here and there, every / dreaded phone call, leak in your heart, snag in your stocking," announces the voice projected onto the other woman in "Perceived Threat," a tense triangulation of desire and sexual rivalry.
Helen Humphreys has published four widely acclaimed books of poetry, and her recent debut novel, Leaving Earth, won, among other honours, the Toronto Book Award. Anthem, her most recent poetry collection, is an exquisitely precise and acute exploration of language, love, and the various kinds of separation entailed by both. This poetry is as intellectually compelling as it is emotionally nuanced, poetry that "rises as memory, comes down as prophecy" ("Foxes"). Poetry that "comes down as prophecy" is, of course, a risky business, given the fine and unforgiving line between vatic wisdom and affectation; Humphreys, however, is clearly a writer on top of her game, and usually pulls it off. Only rarely, as in a few of the imagist epiphanies of "Architecture of the Everyday," or the concluding sequence of "Yaddo"— "to be here is to be gone"—do the lines strain under the weight of Humphreys’s characteristically terse, aphoristic logic; far more frequently, one is dazzled by the way form and meaning come together with beautiful rhythmic control and inspired cadence: "I’d like to feed her words. Lying on our backs in the dark. / Lower them to her lips. Incarnadine. Rhodopsin. Sweet / droop of them" ("For Jackie, Who Will Never Read This").
The poem addressed to the beloved non-reader above indicates the vein of playful irony that alloys the philosophical mood of many of these poems, and yet points simultaneously to one of the more complex concerns of this book with the gulf between knowledge and language. Anthem’s imaginative reach into a world of subjects who exist in language, but who cannot, for one reason or many, fully inhabit it, includes the dyslexic friend who spurns books in "For Jackie"; and the father in "Climatology," whose "weather diary" consists almost entirely of purely functional, factual notations; and, significantly, the poet herself, always probing "the space" "between / what I know and what I can say" ("Foxes").
The collection offers several excellent examples of poems that self-reflexively explore their own compositional procedures to genuinely insightful, as opposed to merely clever, ends—"Chinchilla," "Narrative," "Foxes." The four-part "Chinchilla" lays bare its own associative processes for the reader at the same time that it serially rewrites the memory script it recounts.
My dictionary glosses "anthem" as "a song or hymn of praise or gladness," but Humphreys’s Anthem is an altogether more complex admixture of tonalities. If a song, then it is one of those poetic "Variations" of song that (to paraphrase Walter Pater) recognizes its own aspirations to the condition of music. If it is a hymn of gladness, then it is a hymn of a deeply provisional hope, the tenuous faith of "the shaky knot of hand in human hand" ("Bluewater"). That might be all we have, a "shaky knot" of hands and elusive words to chase. But maybe that is enough. "A word is not pure sound," but skillfully conducted, it can, after au, "persuade the air to change" ("Variations").
Both of these books deserve readers; look for them.
- Tremors Downunder by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O'Brien, and Mark Williams and The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand by Keith Sinclair
- Trans Layton by Kevin McNeilly
Books reviewed: Layton, l'essentiel: Anthologie portative d'Irving Layton by Michel Albert and Irving Layton
- A Smashing Undertaking by Lindsay Milligan
Books reviewed: Giant and Other Gaelic Poems / : Famhair agus dàin Ghàidhlig eile by Lodaidh MacFhionghain and Lewis Mackinnon
- Canadian Antimodern by Brian Trehearne
Books reviewed: A Reassessment of Early Twentieth-Century Canadian Poetry in English by Alexander Kizuk
- Culture Surfing by Stephen Ross
Books reviewed: Be Labour Reading by Clint Burnham, The Concrete Air by Nelson Ball, and The Last Word: An Insomniac Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Poetry by Michael Holmes
MLA: Wiesenthal, Christine. Two Gold Bricks. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 117 - 119)
***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.