Blessing [in] Darkness

Reviewed by Crystal Hurdle

From poets in their prime, these collections explore darkness, Heidi Greco’s on the micro level through one character, aviator Amelia Earhart, and the other two at the macro level—Pamela Porter in a world infused with personal grief, and Jan Zwicky as an everywoman facing the death of the planet. Archetypes, rising and falling, light and dark, fuse.

Flightpaths often reads like an uninterrupted fever dream. In “Dead Reckoning,” the conceit of the double dateline—from “July 2 and 2,” the date of the aviator’s disappearance, to July 24, the date of her imagined death on her fortieth birthday—allows for sequences of alternate possibilities (“[a]s if I am living an alternate life”) set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp (the verisimilitude heightened by Greco’s note: “these may not be in the order in which they were written”) and in a mental institution, with “Joan of Arc liv[ing] down the hall.” As well, Earhart, near death, writes letters to friends and family. Puns and wordplay abound: “Unlucky Strikes,” “4th of July, barely there atoll.” Bookended by a skipping rhyme about Earhart, the playful, imaginative book is lightly peopled with friends (the Roosevelts, Katharine Hepburn) and family (Earhart’s husband and sister). Amelia’s recollections are more about loved ones than her astounding travels. “Cloudlist” notes: “Wrinkly. Aunt Rilla’s sheets, fresh from the line, smelling of sunlight.” The book’s strength (and perhaps limitation) is its focus on a single woman, however inspiring and modern-seeming. Her first plane is described as “some prehistoric bird.” As she nears death, fittingly, “the visiting birds have forsaken me.”

More than birds forsake Zwicky. “Courage,” a frontispiece poem, stuns with its direct address and the dawning horror of the “path unravelling / beneath you.” She joins the reader on the precipice of a world growing apocalyptic through climate change: “Come, and step closer to the edge, then. // You must look, heart. You must look.” “Into the Gap,” with map coordinates, echoes Robert Frost’s “Directive” with disquieting commands and movement into a place, pasts and elsewhere: “to set out then / into the walk that keeps on walking.” The reader is forced to “Witness” (one title, both verb and noun). “What’s coming / won’t be human if it has / no ghost”—this is quietly malevolent. This is a world in which nature is becoming defeated, “burnt yellow grass” from “sick heat” in spite of “the benediction of the alders.” In “The Ruined Garden,” the narrator visits a garden she’d already been dismayed to see the year before; however, sighting brilliantly coloured orioles gives hope.

Gentle use of a collective “we” in “Seeing” and other poems makes the reader a participant and contributor, but Zwicky refrains from accusations. “Consummatum Est” begins with Christ’s dying words, “It is finished” (John 19:30), repeated, with a long haunting list of extinct plants and animals, the horror in its length and lyricism, so many dead—“geometric tortoise,” “Vesper sparrows,” and “silver hair moss.” It is to weep. There are excellent line ends here and elsewhere: blank space in which to ponder. The devastation, not restricted to a single place, is all over: New Brunswick, Alberta, islands in BC, Europe, the Berkeley hills. The speaker “couldn’t tell my sorrow / from the world’s.” Interconnectedness is all. The final poem slyly asks, “Is it the dark itself you love?”—complicity?—before answering in the negative, concluding on a soft image of domesticity, especially lovely as many poems feature a house that represents the world. Homecoming.

Both Zwicky’s and Porter’s collections consist of four numbered but unnamed sections, like a traditional five-act play (a tragedy?), inviting the reader to add (or not) the final act. Porter’s “The Abandoned Farm” invites the reader to journey into the past, a prairie girlhood, acquiring a self of many layers, farm sensibility—reiterations of roses, blooming mustard, horses, and moons, so many horses and moons (too many?), “a stranger light, a brighter dark.” The world is apocalyptic in man-made disaster, the Albion mine with “strange snow,” and even natural harvest “long past the sun’s / slow fire burning out.” In “All they could do,” the dead “arrive, congregants at the feeder.” The many birds—chickadees, peregrines, blackbirds, robins, snow geese, owls, ravens, eagles, ospreys, and even “the finch in hawk’s talons”—are excellent images of vulnerability amid destructiveness.

Where Zwicky’s hope lies in the music of Brahms, Haydn, and Schumann, Porter concludes “The first musicians were birds” with “Be the bird.” Porter alludes to Lear, Penelope, and the Polish poet Zagajewski; Zwicky to Edward Hopper, the Neoplatonist Simplikios, other philosophers, and several poet-friends, widening the scope. While nature is the focus, both poets specify the man-made, Porter with Allis-Chalmers, and Zwicky with John Deere and Dodge Ram. Many of Porter’s and Zwicky’s lines/themes would be at home in the other’s collection. Zwicky, like Porter, bemoans the loss of small-town life, specifically the grain elevators in “Depth.” Porter notes “dark and light remained sutured to each other,” while Zwicky writes, “It’s what / being’s made of: light / scoring the dark.” Zwicky wonders early on if we can “secur[e] the house”: is it already too late? Frightening. Even if one doesn’t “want to be a poet any more. // To be marked by God to stand apart, / to bear witness, make account” (Porter), there’s little choice. If these are end times, light/dark the patina of an unholy and unchanging season, what better than to read compelling poetry? The three books are themselves balm, benedictions, nay, even wings.

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