Between Light and Time

Reviewed by Ryan Fitzpatrick

Translated by Robert Majzels and Erín Moure, Nicole Brossard’sWhite Piano dwells along a series of temporal and physical borderlines: between the apocalyptic panic of the future and the archival pleasure of the past, between the body’s politics of touch and language’s typological risks, and between concrete detail and totalizing abstraction. Similar in composition to earlier collections likeLovhers (originally Amantes, translated by Barbara Godard, 1987) andInstallations (translated by Majzels and Moure, 1989), Brossard’s miniatures work between the concrete and the abstract, often concretizing abstractions in the process. Language is constantly doubling in Brossard’s poetry as an eye/I needs to be careful to watch for the moments when words take on new resonances. In this collection, Brossard turns the violence and possibility of the relationship of body and language around each other, simultaneously considering a politics of [removed]of musicality, of textual history) alongside a politics of touch (of relation, of love). In this, the piano becomes a strange kind of figure for her explorations; it is at once lounge fixture, consumer product, and instrument of expression that is not merely neutral, but carries a kind of violence (“piano massacre of teeth”). Brossard works in a space defined by both a worry about the potential violence carried in the body and language and an understanding of the need for story. It is this need for story, for language that connects us rather than bashes some of our teeth in, that draws Brossard and her poetic companions to the museum and archive as a space of futurity, as a site for discovering resonances with the present. “[T]his is devious landscape,” her archival companion suggests, leaning hard on that final word, “we will have to count our belongings.”

In Undark, the follow-up to her Exploding into Night (nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2010), Sandy Pool chases a series of voices that speak to the impact of radium as a commercial product in the early years of the twentieth century. Pool’s language works between the vibrant and literally seductive language of convenience and the troubling language of disease. Undark is a poetic drama of gaps in the painted-on light—giving voice to those left unnarrated in the sweeping teleologies of industrial progress. Switching between temporalities and characters, Pool zeroes in specifically on the radium dial painters—women hired to paint luminescent radium paint onto watch dials (often for use by the military)—and their struggle to be compensated by their employers for the way their unsafe working conditions demolished their bodies. Using this narrative as an organizational thread, Pool is able to incorporate voices ranging from Sabin von Sochocky (inventor of the Undark paint and co-founder of the Radium Luminous Material Corporation), to the disembodied voice of Undark’s advertising copy, the misnamed figure of Marie Curie, and the decayed voices of Sappho and Hatshepsut. The effect of Pool’s vocal mixture is an examination of time—both the reckless, profit-above-all futurism of capitalist progress and also the elegiac archaeologies of past remembrance. The half-life of radium (1601 years) is over-mapped onto both the quickly decaying lives of the radium dial workers and the long decayed textual traces of other historical women. Pool accompanies her dramatizations with a literal countdown clock at the bottom of each page, which suggests radium’s half-life but also poses the question of what we’re counting down to. Perhaps, we’re meant to count the moments to our complete forgetting as we stare into the luminescent screens of our smart phones, produced god knows where by no one.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s third book Light spins poem after poem out of her title, considering “Light” in all its timbres: luminosity, weight, race, etc. As is thematically appropriate, Light has a tonal weightlessness—the book is a light breeze to read—that betrays itself in the stacking, interleaved serializations at work. Thammavongsa’s poems are formally economical, tackling a range of subject matters from sea creatures to family relations. Within this, her poems are connected through a consideration of geometry and orderliness gestured to in her opening poem which references American abstract painter Agnes Martin, who gave the title Untitled #10 to a number of canvasses, each composed of neutrally-coloured horizontal lines, often blurring together. Like Martin, Thammavongsa composes similar canvases, serializing minor variations across multiple poems. Thammavongsa gently plays between the orderliness of Martin’s lines and the way they seem to blur together. That said, Light is at its best when it finds ways to deviate from its consistent surface—the turn to recounted narrative in a poem like “Perfect,” for instance, comes as a surprise that rearticulates the lightness of much of the rest of the book by redefining the book’s abstract stakes on a more personal level . It’s in this continual circularity, this repeated cycling through a number of intersecting serial forms, that we see a cyclical reframing of ideas and forms in the light of other ideas and forms—a continual bringing of things to light.

This review “Between Light and Time” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 131-32.

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