Grief—difficult to handle, much less write about—is subject of all three collections under review; they are addressed, in Clea Roberts’ words, to “people like us / who have eaten / from the same plate of sorrow.”
In “Judging Sorrow” from her debut collection, Frequent, small loads of laundry, Rhonda Ganz comments, “Every poet with a dead mother has a dead mother / poem,” reflexively outlining the usual (perhaps bathetic) tropes and unexpected leaps. In “Incommunicado,” her parents say that their intermittent silence, because they refuse to pay for “cruise ship Wi-Fi,” will “be like when we’re dead / and your loudest wail / won’t reach us”—shockingly funny, real, and relatable. Not yet orphaned, she seems no stranger to death; suicide runs in the family, as “Pruning the Family Tree” (a fun pun) shows. The “you” in “Permit Yourself an Afternoon of Wailing I,” who gets an addict rather than a “gardener off Craigslist,” with absurd results, is invited to “mourn for everything / that will never grow back.” “Permit Yourself an Afternoon of Wailing II,” similarly funny yet plangent, ends the collection: Comedy, too often maligned, leavens darkness.
In After Swissair, her first poetry collection, prolific children’s writer Budge Wilson bravely takes on the grief of the entire Halifax community who suffered after the crash of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998. As Wilson’s voluminous Introduction and Acknowledgements attest, she’s spoken to several members of the community most affected by the crash, allowing many to comment on the manuscript. Channelling grief into dirge, she wants to give them voice; however, the Appendix, a two-page prose recollection, “One Year After the Crash,” offers the concentrated emotional resonance that the hundred-odd pages of poetry go little beyond. It mines Memory for accuracy, as if such is Truth, not taking wing, as does Renée Saklikar’s Children of Air India, an imaginative reinvention about a similar tragedy. This reviewer wanted to hear more about the lost Picasso painting, or the possible incendiary device, but Wilson’s book is narrowly focused—a well-intended tribute to the wide range of Haligonians involved.
Wilson’s poetry works best in images: golf balls replacing flowers as a tribute to athletic Monte; the human chain transferring mementoes to the wind-ravaged sea; and the heart-shaped stones commemorating the dead on the seventh anniversary of the crash, though even this piece includes a note that the process recurred on the tenth anniversary, echoed again in the Acknowledgements. The photograph of a beautiful commemorative quilt appears three times. Though the book’s relentless prosiness might suggest the scope of grief, it becomes monotonous, not harrowing.
Clea Roberts’ second poetry collection, Auguries, is a stellar depiction of grief amidst the brightness of new life. “Morning Practice,” a long lyric poem, looks at grief through a series of yoga poses. The clever double equivocation of the title carries through in rich visuals and sharp imagery. It’s no surprise that Roberts “facilitates a workshop on poetry and grief”—her arresting writing could be a textbook. Roberts reminds us of the thin line separating life and death: “our first exhale / and our last.” “Pneumonia” reveals her dying mother “Spring Planting” lists various unadorned definitions of grief, “a slow / river, never freezing / to the bottom,” each more evocative than the last. In poetry, less is more. The reader is able to fill in the blanks with her own experience.
The arrangement of each collection is revealing of how it approaches its subject. Wilson’s has no breaks and is mostly chronological (suffering clearly continues years after the disaster), with many monologues from actual people. Ganz’s pretty book, self-designed, goes through days of the week, each marked by a different song/singer, foreshadowing the mix of profundity and silliness (alongside the graphics of laundry and birds) enclosed within. Its endpapers are a cheerful yellowy-orange. Roberts’ sections are unnamed; instead, empty (or all-but) pages are inserted between sections, with outlines of gray jays flying off the pages into the great unknown. The reader becomes inclined to follow the flights of what could be cliff swallows, geese, swans, cranes, waxwings, kingfishers, ravens, juncos, sparrows, or gulls, all of which appear in the collection. The endpapers are new-leaf green, appropriately signifying rebirth.
Wilson wonders how her beloved sea could be the repository of such horror—all aboard the plane dead, the salvage machinery of the Grapple appears a “sinister insect / searching for prey.” In “Epiphany,” when her nun friend explains that the sadness will never disappear, she sees anew the waves’ “underbellies full of sun and gold” and the “[sea] created by wind my wind / sorrow and beauty wedded in one place.” Such beautiful and taut imagery is similarly woven throughout Roberts’ work, so often that it is difficult to choose examples:
this is the way
the living walk
after they pierce
with their heads.
There is a dark, quirky
fluttering at the periphery:
bats arriving; or
parts of our dreams
we forgot, remembered.
Roberts is mistress of the line break, creating breathtaking stanzas—even whole poems—that read like runes. She delights in the physicality of her infant daughter, Linnaea (the name itself a poem), “fierce // petal of [her] tongue / drawing down the milk.” The book has a sensual haiku-like spareness: frost meets forest, Yukon flavouring, love of the natural world. Even the sound of a dying fridge is described as that of crickets. Ganz, “Elgar on [her] breath,” plays with “sugar” in different contexts: a possible term of endearment in a direct address; melting, sweating, “blackened sugar” after a bomb; never cloying. Kimmy Beach-like quirky juxtapositions deliver a wide cast of characters: departing and ex-husbands, Hades, Ophelia, Picasso, Schrödinger, the Pope.
Each book is about more than grief. Wilson unfurls the power of community in her collective consolation. Earnest portraits show real humanity: the uncomplaining fishermen unable to return to their place of work. Roberts finds love and hope in nature, a new child, and the flight paths of birds. Ganz looks to the wicked fun offered by life. Eloquently expressing a sentiment shared by the others, Roberts writes:
how to breathe
and the beautiful . . .