Form, Faith, and Death

Reviewed by Matthew Zantingh

Amid the continuing dominance of free verse, it can sometimes seem like formal poetry is a thing of the past. However, recent collections by two young poets, Amanda Jernigan and Sarah Tolmie, and the late E. D. Blodgett’s penultimate volume demonstrate the continuing relevance and importance of form and structure. (Another book by Blodgett will appear posthumously in 2019.) While each of these books has a distinct approach, together they draw from the store of poetry’s formal craft to enrich their own work. This approach is matched with weighty subject matter as Blodgett uses Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder to meditate on childhood and death, Jernigan translates Mennonite hymns into a kind of post-secular spirituality, and Tolmie’s entire book reflects on the art of dying.

Years, Months, and Days is Jernigan’s third collection of poetry and marks a significant departure from her earlier work. It is a slim volume of translations that she calls “meditations on the possibility of translation.” Her source text is an 1836 Mennonite hymnal titled Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung, and her poems take select phrases from the Plautdietsch and transplant them into contemporary English. The result is an elegant little book of fragments and pieces that draws on the rhythms and images of Christian liturgy. Despite growing up in the “briar patch of secular skepticism,” Jernigan is remarkably generous and reverent in her approach. The final poem in the prologue reads:

I ask
who shrives
the heart

—and it is clear that the whole collection is Jernigan’s process of digging through spiritual traditions rooted in the Waterloo region where she grew up. In its best moments, Jernigan crafts pithy yet piercing poems that echo in the mind—with the three closing hymns particularly poignant. Intriguingly, at the Inter Arts Matrix writer’s residency that gave birth to this project, contemporary classical composer Colin Labadie used Jernigan’s words as the basis for his own musical piece, returning these translated words to music in a fitting circle.

Blodgett’s volume, divided into three sections of twenty poems with no poem longer than a single page, is the most intricately structured of the three collections. The poems are typically structured in triplets, though couplets occasionally show up. Like Jernigan, Blodgett uses a musical source in Mahler’s song cycle, itself based on the works of German poet Friedrich Rückert. Songs for Dead Children builds slowly and intricately, using several key images—children running and playing, the stars, the
moon, and flying, among others—to contemplate loss and absence, especially the death of children. The opening poem works to capture a child’s mentality:

their only thought
to be green
to be the green pastures
to be
the clean innocence of green[.]

This vitality contrasts sharply with the silences that abound throughout the collection, with later poems featuring “the ghosts of children” or memories of children that now sting the speaker. The collection seems at times insubstantial or transient, but this fits the way memory hovers at the edge of our perception so that the small moments of remembering can invoke utter loss.

Tolmie’s collection stands apart from the other two by nature of her frequently irreverent tone. This wry tone is not necessarily new: Trio, her first collection, features 120 interlinked sonnets that often take a playful and wry approach to the sonnet form. However, in this volume, Tolmie turns her attention to the medieval genre of ars moriendi, translating it into the twenty-first century. Perhaps fittingly, several poems bemoan the impotence or failing health of poetry only to reverse this position later and claim that “Art never dies, it just annoys from time to time.” The eighty-nine poems of The Art of Dying are mostly written in triplets, providing a formal base to further ground these ruminations. The insistent focus on the many aspects of death produces a kaleidoscopic portrait of the many insufficient ways contemporary North American culture engages with death. Tolmie critiques the ways we talk about death in phrases like “passing on,” and how social media offer a false kind of “care” for distant tragedies; she riffs on Sylvia Plath’s poetry and Oliver Sacks’ death; and she pens a touching if winking ode to Conrad, the raccoon found dead in Toronto’s streets in 2015. Tolmie’s levity and conversational voice occasionally put her poems at odds with Jernigan’s and Blodgett’s, yet the effect of the collection is to move readers to think more deeply and honestly about death.

These volumes are worth reading as Tolmie and Jernigan demonstrate that they are vital emerging voices while Blodgett reaffirms his status as a unique voice in Canadian poetry. His recent death is a great loss for the community of Canadian poetry.

This review “Form, Faith, and Death” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 130-131.

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