Contemplating Nostalgia

  • Ann Scowcroft (Author)
    The Truth of Houses. Brick Books
  • Richard Lemm (Author)
    Burning House. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
  • Inge Israel (Author)
    Beckett Soundings. Ronsdale Press
Reviewed by Alexis Foo

Nostalgia is a prominent theme in the collections of Richard Lemm, Inge Israel, and Ann Scowcroft. This attention to the past, to the delicacy of memory and the question of its existence in the present is expressed in varying forms. Lemm’s collection Burning House evokes a sense of nostalgia that is quintessentially North American in flavour. In “Where Were You,” the speaker recalls a school mishap of a broken formaldehyde jar and the way in which “we carried those passed out from the formaldehyde / fumes down flights of stairs / to the lawn, the blue sky clear / of bombers, blinding lights.” The following lines in the poem “next day, with the football team, I donated / blood, proud American. Adrenalin pumping / under my pads Friday night on the sideline” epitomizes and mythologizes American youth culture. The varsity football player becomes the ultimate hero and symbol of masculinity and patriotism.

In “Heroes from the Burning House,” the speaker recalls being “crouched / behind the neighbour’s hedge / with a trash can shield, a broomstick spear, / water pistol with Amazon poison, / or curling iron converted to atomic zap.” It is through this comical image of a child’s game that the underlying trope of heroism or rather, the desire to be heroic, surfaces in this collection. “I’m ready for the mortar shells of dirt clods falling . . . and if needed, to dash to my home, / wake my grandmother, napping. / and carry her from the burning house.” Burning House leaves the reader with a yearning for more of Lemm’s undeniably masculine poetic voice. In “Curtain,” the speaker addresses a woman, possibly a lover, who mourns the death of Pavarotti. “You wore the red dress with cleavage / Luciano would have rapturously / serenaded, and gold-trimmed high heels / to board the barge on the Nile of your patio.” It is his frankness and refusal to romanticize the key moments in his poems that allows his verse to take on sensuousness that is as authentic as it is provocative.

Scowcroft navigates the terrains of personal history and aging with poise and acceptance in The Truth of Houses. Her collection is heavy with meditations on architectural spaces that are inseparable from the memory of the body, as well as the enigma of time itself. Though the collection aims for profundity, certain emotionally charged poems such as “Dear Leah” lose their poetic momentum and begin to rely on prosaic phrases. “His grief was immediate and profound. / I rocked him in my arms / but all I could find to say was / I know, I know.”

In “How to Begin,” the speaker contemplates the redundancy of everyday life, yet finds solace in the filaments of her existence. “The telephone answered again and again . . . again and again the sun leaps above the dark swathe of forest.” The poem concludes with insight, “and all is new again— / as long as the heart can crack and scar, / bear the world into the world / just one more day.” Though the span of Scowcroft’s contemplations is impressive, and there is a constant sense of arrival and of maturation in her poetry, The Truth of Houses lacks in its ability to challenge the reader as we are handed thoughts and conclusions so blatantly in the form of narrative statements.

In Beckett Soundings, Israel boldly attempts to capture the essence of Samuel Beckett’s paradoxical character. Her poems are laden with references to the late poet’s works. In “Waiting for Godot,” Israel succeeds at perpetuating the play’s infamous ambiguity through her verse. “What a free-for-all this play / has led to—with no end in sight.” Israel then adopts the “I” voice in the last stanza with the lines, “all I claim is to present / the way it is: / most can only wait / and yes, some serve.” The reader assumes that the voice is intended to echo Beckett, yet it is difficult to give the late poet this level of false authority.

The voice of the collection also changes drastically in tone. In contrast to the flowery adjectives of “Wordlessly”—“in the blackness / of pain, of deep anguish / and resignation, each exquisite / note becomes a candle”—“What Is This” concludes with the conversational phrase: “as if we didn’t have / enough to cope with!” There is something unsettling about reading a collection of poetry that attempts to capture the voice of another poet and make it current. It is as if the reader is getting a dose of “fan fiction” rather than an authentic look into Beckett’s psyche. If a reader is curious about the inner workings of Beckett’s mind, he or she should read Beckett.

This review “Contemplating Nostalgia” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 164-65.

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