Broken and Unbroken Lines

Reviewed by Geordie Miller

Uncertainty can be clarifying, as both of these conceptually rich new collections affirm, especially when you pose purposeful questions and find the right companions. “Is it // the verb that does the big work? as some poets hold . . .” Elana Wolff asks mid-Swoon. The verb “swoon,” for instance—what “work” is it doing for this particular poet? Wolff’s four epigraphs offer the beginnings of an answer. They include Rebecca’s first glimpse of Isaac in the Book of Genesis, which supplies the patriarchal connotation of “swoon”—as an expression of excess (feminized) emotion. But Rebecca does not fall, and the subsequent epigraphs associate swooning with empowerment, with reference to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Robert Walser’s The Walk, and Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena. Walser, a favourite author of Kafka’s, announces that he “would die of delight, or at least hit the floor in a swoon, if ever such a transformation occurred.” The “transformation” that Walser feels empowered to imagine is women wearing tighter pants. Wolff does not supply this context of heteropatriarchal male desire, but her multiple poetic mobilizations of swooning assail such presumptions.

In “Not Be Wrong” Wolff asks, “where are you now, / and are you safe?” She is addressing a crow “that got out of the murder.” There is no answer, only the care in asking. Alongside question marks, ellipses and white space together do “big work” in Swoon, perhaps marking a poetic mind’s unwillingness to settle for certainty’s premature closures. As one poet, John Keats, famously held, uncertainty is a prerequisite for literary achievement. Though Wolff seems at least as interested in negative space—to borrow the title of one of her poems—as negative capability. The collection is full of jagged juxtapositions, of lines that begin in the middle of the page, as if awoken. White space demarcates all of Wolff’s ellipses, suggesting the intentionality of excision rather than a trailing off.

Swoon contains two poignant poem cycles. In the first, “Messenger Suite,” Wolff offers apostrophes to various birds, whose presence and songs ultimately retain the agency of mystery. Wolff listens; she does not impose projections. “These birds—they must be messengers. / They’ve come,” the cycle concludes. The second cycle, “Stacked Cast,” features one of six examples in the collection of poems inspired by a Women’s Art Association of Canada artist. Janet F. Potter’s Life in Vancouver sets the scene for the final poem in “Stacked Cast,” entitled “Simple Cyan”: “The bay-scape as imagined in a mythopoeic vision: / seagulls, those immortal horses, reeling to the heights.” These concrete ekphrastic dialogues subtly complement Wolff’s appropriately surrealist sketches of Kafka in poems like “Traffic” and “Surfacing Behaviour.” Kafka’s youngest sister, Ottla, also makes a memorable appearance. “—I’ve longed to find therein some clue or truth about my life,” Wolff writes of Ottla’s eyes, which are “opaque as the pool in the Ring, and shrine-like.”

This quest for “some clue or truth” defines the conceit of Cornelia Hoogland and Ted Goodden’s Cosmic Bowling. They are not bowling alone but communicating with each other through the I Ching. The collection reproduces an exhibition of Goodden’s ceramic sculptures and Hoogland’s poems that ran at four BC galleries in 2016 and 2017. In book form, a facsimile of each of Goodden’s sixty-four sculptures, corresponding to a hexagram from the ancient Chinese divination manual, is displayed before Hoogland’s six-line poems. The cosmic scale is apparent from the outset. Hoogland’s first poem, “Ch’ien, the Creative,” opens as follows: “Six unbroken lines forge a white-hot connection. / We’re born for heat. Maybe lava, earth’s / molten core; maybe the sun’s energy.” Several of the subsequent poems likewise look skyward, and Hoogland’s celestial contemplations are grounded through recurring reflections on more immediate, mundane concerns like dog walks, rush hour, and “Martha Stewart’s glossy mag on the table.”

The kaleidoscopic movements of Hoogland’s lines are formally enhanced by her artful caesuras, which make room for surprising shifts. Her crisp and more politically urgent tercets, meanwhile, speak to the contingencies and exigencies that consulting the I Ching can unearth. Climate catastrophe is a frequent topic, notably in the second stanza of “Ta Kuo, Preponderance of the Great”: “The planet’s idling on fumes, a kind of deadly / inertia. We go on being part of the problem. Like Atlas / bearing up the sky, a strained and daily quality. We suffer.” We suffer, “but who would Sisyphus be without his rock,” as a later poem concludes. Hoogland’s Sisyphus analogy is not to us, though, but “the tagged Monarch butterfly,” whose mass migration Hoogland tags as a symbol of perseverance.

To the skeptical or uninitiated, the idea that meaningful self-knowledge might emerge from the I Ching in the struggle against the stacked deck of oppressive social realities is one of Cosmic Bowling’s major provocations. The moments where Hoogland steps back to assess the conceit only reinforce how the insights of the ancient text, like justice and emancipatory futures, are not so easily won. “Very Chinese, this hexagram. Hard for westerners / to understand,” she observes in “Kuei Mei, the Marrying Maiden.” For those also experiencing difficulties understanding, luckily the collection includes an informative closing essay by Goodden, “The I Ching: It Works If You Work It” (this review takes its title from the essay’s definition of a hexagram). Goodden provides an illuminating history of the text and eloquently describes its value to him both personally and in his practice as a clinical psychologist. Goodden spiritedly situates the I Ching as an antidote to

the news cycle, which daily releases a flood of despair and anxiety, not to mention fear and loathing, leaving in its wake a defeated feeling that it’s too late in the game to be making the case for an ancient Chinese wisdom book. But this is exactly what I intend to do.”

The multiple collaborations that compose Cosmic Bowling certainly succeed in making this case.

This review “Broken and Unbroken Lines” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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