Canyons of Darkness

  • Susan Gillis
    The Rapids. Brick Books
  • Pamela Mordecai
    Subversive Sonnets. TSAR Publications
  • Jonathan Ball
    The Politics of Knives. Coach House Books
Reviewed by Emily Wall

These three poets ask us to explore the dark crevices of humanity. They take us to scenes of rape, of slavery, of dislocation in the twenty-first century, and of deep loneliness even in places of beauty. All three ask us to take note of the failures of humankind, and the ways in which we can so deeply harm each other.

The Politics of Knives by Jonathan Ball is a book of negation, absences, and loss. Ball uses language in original and sharp ways to make us feel the loss at the core of his poems. One of the most interesting techniques is his use of repetition. In several of the poems, perhaps most notably “The Most Terrible of Dogs” he uses it so heavily (the word “waiting” is repeated one-hundred and two times) that it forces the reader’s dislocation from language itself. We cannot read the word that many times without beginning to skim, to skip ahead, to try and land on something else.

Perhaps the most successful poem is “Psycho.” Ball fragments the Hitchcock film and moves us through an image collage, offering us little slices of movie. Here, he achieves something unique—the movie becomes closer to our own experiences than it would ever have been on screen. Those slices of image, some of them repeated several times, help us recognize how that film shaped our own understanding of fear and desire and psychosis. He ends the poem with the line “Why would we ever harm a fly?” Readers recognize that moment from the film, of course, but by isolating it like this it too becomes our own experience.

A number of moments focus on the camera itself. As readers we are often given the image of the camera—sometimes along with what it is viewing as well. This hyper-awareness of the way we see things underscores Ball’s themes of dislocation and loss. The “I” rarely appears in these poems, but there is someone standing off to the side, wry and objective, aware of both the scene and the camera. This, too, is a kind of dislocation. Readers are not invited into the life of the speaker or even the emotional landscape.

The Rapids by Susan Gillis is also a book of dislocation. Gillis’ gift is her seductive images. Most poems are constructed of images and then end with a statement. What’s jarring is that the statements rarely seem to have a strong connection to the images. By fragmenting the narrative this way, she removes any trace of speaker from the landscape she’s just created. The speaker tries to connect to the images but ultimately doesn’t. In the poem “In the Storm” she tries to garden but can’t keep up, can’t get into the world of its beauty. In the end it “was the garden dividing me.”

Gillis’ most powerful moments are her listings of images. Some of the poems offer long lists of beautiful objects but don’t connect the objects or the speaker to the objects. Perhaps the strongest is “Anchor.” In this poem, which is almost entirely a list, the speaker packs everything from eucalyptus fronds to a lame man in her suitcase. But nothing connects the speaker to the objects—she is unable to anchor herself to the world through her listing.

While the language and image work is smart and does a perfect job of creating dislocation, a reader might wish that Gillis would take more risks. She has small moments of narrative (“divorce” and “hotel rooms”) that make her presence suddenly known, but she doesn’t follow those dark, personal moments. She repeatedly takes us to the edge, but not over it.

Unlike in the poems of Ball and Gillis, Pamela Mordecai is incredibly present in Subversive Sonnets. She takes on a multitude of voices and personae, but she’s right here, vivid and complex. There’s no detached cynicism or language play. She doesn’t comment on any of the stories—there is no meta-poetics here. She just lets the stories stand. And like all good stories, they make us feel like part of the fabric of humanity.

These poems are a brilliant blend of lyric and narrative. Most of them are narrative poems, but they also play with the sonnet form and end rhyme to excellent effect. Mordecai has built very seductive, musical stories. She translates the sonnet form into something new and it works beautifully. Her end rhyme comes and goes—she creates schemes, but isn’t wedded to them. Because it’s more fluid, it arrives like an upswing in song and then falls away again— exactly as music in poems should.

These poems are fierce. Unafraid. Mordecai shows us shocking images and tells us terrible stories. However, it’s the presence of the speaker that makes them so powerful. She’s not afraid to become the characters in her stories and to probe the darkest places of humanity.

They are not all dark, though. They are irreverent and biting and full of moments of beauty too. We have a poem where orphans fall in love with a nun who has a funny accent. We have Auntie Vida who says about a lover and incompatibility, “Oh no, / my dear! You’re not looking at this the right way at all . . . / You have the income. I am pattable.” (“Counting the Ways and Marrying True Minds”). These moments of levity let us breathe, and also make the darker moments all the darker for the comparison.

All three poets have their own strengths and their own visions, and all ask us to look into the darkness for a while. They lead the reader down a dark road that ends in a dark canyon and then they ask: will we dare to look over the edge?

This review “Canyons of Darkness” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 127-28.

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