Stray. icehouse poetry
Paint, Poet, Mountain: After Cézanne. Quattro Books
Neither the emerging Allison LaSorda nor the veteran Susan McCaslin disappoints with these two new volumes. Stray, LaSorda’s debut, shows much promise and contains many gems. The speaker often explores and develops her identity through various images and short narratives, sometimes opaque or jarringly juxtaposed but slowly revealing her deepening confidence and understanding as the collection progresses. The poems in the opening “Fish” section often embody aspects of an adult identity emerging from the sometimes wistful, sometimes comic, often turbulent events of childhood and adolescence. Family members—father, mother, and sister—appear on the fringes, never quite clearly defined, but playing important developmental roles. The speaker sometimes appears to both attract and resist the reader, as in these lines from “The Sea Is All about Us”: “My anxiety’s / origin story isn’t in bleached reefs / or fault lines, it’s in maws / gaping with somedays.” In other instances the arch humour of poems such as “Playdate” resonates through a tight and effectively controlled structure. “Fish & Bird,” the section’s concluding piece, develops confidently to a brilliant conclusion on the difference between “small” and “large” cuts—in our bodies and our lives. In the following “Bird” section, a poem like “Out of the Chorus” captures the breathless energy of the speaker’s imagined memories of restlessness in the womb and her lively adult dancing, with an ending that echoes that of Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” In other poems LaSorda poignantly recreates some of life’s most tragic moments, as in “Fraterville Coal Mine,” which recounts the Fraterville mining disaster of 1902, the worst in Tennessee’s history. It is narrated by alternating voices, with real quotations from a letter written by one of the miners a short time before his death by suffocation and imagined replies from his wife on the outside. The final section, “Meat,” continues some of the earlier topics and themes, notably “Driving 25 Sideroad, North of 30,” which sums up the challenges of keeping identity intact through selective memories: “Finding oneself is a chore. / I want the wild impulses / of another’s troubles.” There will surely be more books to come from LaSorda.
McCaslin’s Painter, Poet, Mountain, subtitled After Cézanne and featuring a cover photo of one of Paul Cézanne’s most famous works, Mont Sainte-Victoire, is a poetic pilgrimage of sorts, beginning with McCaslin’s journey to Aix-en-Provence and continuing but not concluding with her return to Fort Langley, BC. The groundbreaking career of the painter Cézanne (1839-1906), bridging impressionism and cubism, was to have a profound impact on many twentieth-century painters, novelists, and poets. McCaslin focuses on some of his most famous artistic subjects, most notably Mont Sainte-Victoire, apples, and bathers, to all of which he returned many times; his relationships with his father and mother, Paul Jr., his wife Hortense, and Émile Zola; and his later influence on writers as varied as Gertrude Stein, Rainer Maria Rilke, Martin Heidegger, and Thomas Merton. But in this, her fourteenth book of poems, the profound influence of Cézanne’s legacy on McCaslin herself is almost palpable. There is a brilliant suite of poems on the subject of Mont Sainte-Victoire, which she casts, among other tropes, as a modern Mount Sinai, down which Cézanne (“this late-coming Moses”) lugs “his burning canvas scrolls.” Like Cézanne’s own variations on this subject, McCaslin’s poems approach the mountain from many angles, including three “Quantum Mountain” études. The processes of painterly and poetic compositions are almost effortlessly conflated in these ekphrastic offerings, perhaps nowhere more than in these lines with their perfect bilingual pun:
Open the lines to themselves
to make room for the painter’s
and their absences[.]
Cézanne’s apples figure significantly in many other poems—as in quotations such as “Cézanne’s Apple rolled the stone from the mouth of the tomb” (D. H. Lawrence) or “‘There’s more of ultimate reality / in an apple by Cézanne / than in a Jesus by Hoffman’” (Suzanne de Cézanne [sic] playfully quoting the spirit of Thomas Merton de Cézanne [sic] paraphrasing Paul Tillich). Painter, Poet, Mountain is, among its many brilliances, an evocative journey into the lives and artistic spirits of both Cézanne and McCaslin herself. At one point she writes: “I want to make one poem / as real as his apples.” In this luminous journey into the heart and mind of a genius, she has succeeded, more than once, in doing so.