A Precarious Balance

Reviewed by Robin McGrath

Mark Callanan’s second volume of poetry, Gift Horse, is a fast, intense read, flowing more like a novel than like a collection of poems. Written after a near-fatal health crisis, Callanan writes from the perspective of someone who is aware of his own mortality for the first time in his life, and consequently sees death everywhere. The premise sounds grim and even depressing, but the poems are so charged with the intensity of his experience that they positively burst with life.

Many of the poems refer to the seafaring life endemic to Callanan’s home port of St. John’s, Newfoundland, but as he notes in “Sailors,” if they are “not the kind that roam the ocean, / then at least those men at sea/in their own lives, [are] cut loose and dragged / by trade winds and foreign tides.”

The first section in particular focuses on death and dying (“The Myth of Orpheus,” “Last Suppers”) but the entire book is riddled with rats, wolves, and the crabs and lobsters that feed on the drowned. The poems aren’t exactly morbid—they are too lively for that—but they have the ominous glint of “a blade drawn / across a wetstone” that “filing by filing, / finds its edge.”

The rare outburst of humour in “Insurance Claim” comes as a great relief: a dog, trained to fetch, retrieves a stick of dynamite being used for illegal poaching, and when the owner tries to shoot him to keep him from returning with it, the dog crouches under the man’s brand new truck. It’s a shaggy-dog story, compressed down into 71 intense words.

M. Travis Lane, in Ash Steps, also writes at length about death and dying, but each of the poems is as full as an egg. Apparently written during and after the death of her spouse, the collection’s sense of loss, acceptance, inevitability and exhaustion can be applied to far less traumatic events in one’s own lives.

Death is mentioned or suggested in virtually all the poems in the collection, but this death is not unexpected, not a surprise. Like Callanan’s work, the book tracks and traces the history of an illness, a hospitalization and its aftermath, but here the author is neither amazed nor indignant—rather there is a level of inevitable acceptance. Death is “Like a grief kept in a cupboard, / where the door, sometimes, unlatches”; it lowers “slowly like a blind.”

In the opening poem, “Confluence,” Lane establishes the idea of balance, “like a small bubble…midway in a plumber’s level.” Life and death, the old and the new, joy and sadness all have a mid-way point, a place between the two. The pitch-perfect metre, the restrained use of rhyme, and the small, unnamed birds that inhabit the poems like judiciously placed commas all convey a sense of ordered progression rather than blind panic in the face of the inevitable.

Lane’s poems open out—extracting echoes and reverberations and possibilities from the reader. They are the reverse of narcissistic, taking the author’s pain and suffering and turning it outward to reflect that which can be found in any human. Describing her husband after his third stroke saying goodbye to his possessions, “loving for all good reasons every thing / he must put by,” she finds the irony in the two meanings of “stuff” —treasured material and junk. You don’t have to be dealing with death to understand that paradox.

Donald McGrath’s poems in The Port Inventory are chock full of vivid details that read wonderfully, but they serve no purpose here except as an end in themselves. His recollections of baking cods’ eyeballs to use as marbles, or of his mother scrubbing on a glass board or putting frozen underwear into the stove to thaw, don’t lead to anything except a sense of nostalgia. All the goods are in the shop window, but do you want to go in and is there anything to carry away?

McGrath can match Callanan’s sense of place, but his rhythms are uneven and his use of rhyme seems to be random. Even the first lines of the poems (“The glass was blue-green, like the sea, / and furrowed like it, too” or “While the outport slept, the horses / trailed back in along the roads”) read more like the opening lines of stories than poems. The Port Inventory has its attractions, but the predominance of prose poems and the commonplace suggests that these meditations are presented as poetry only because the author didn’t have time to write them in a longer, more expansive form.

Patrick Warner’s Perfection, his fourth book of poems, focuses on the deterioration of the body, either self-inflicted or brought about by time. A number of the poems deal with anorexia, but this is more metaphorical than autobiographical. In “Ablutions of a Middle-Aged Man,” the narrator stares into a mirror as intently as any teenaged girl, and inventories all the flaws he sees—the rosacea and seborrhoea that mar and pit his skin—and lists all the unguents and lotions that might bring it under control. It is not entirely funny. There is a strong sense of revulsion of the flesh here.

The anorexia poems are black with bile—against the disease, the therapists, the selves who are responsible for it. The tone lightens only temporarily in a satiric piece about the trial of a chocolate chip pancake that concludes, “the pancake will fry. / At which the defendant is led away / by a strudel and a rhubarb pie.”

There are birds in these poems too, but the owls are “crepuscular,” the pelicans murderous and the Versace thrushes are “hijab birds.” In “The Black Rats,” the body is a leather armchair, its stuffing infested. In “Polyurethane,” it is a leprous house shedding paint. At “The Pound of Flesh Bazaar” it is a meat market display of hands, genitals, and breasts.

Warner employs repetition, reusing words, phrases, and whole verses to new effect, delighting in the twisted logic of a “meaningless meaningful way,” a “cot-caught merger,” “the Caesar of their seizures,” or a “vision’s versions and revisions.” This is not a comfortable or comforting book, but it certainly stirs the imagination and gives an unusual view of middle-aged angst.

This review “A Precarious Balance” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 143-44.

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