Formally Enlightening

  • Marzia Paton (Translator) and E.D. Blodgett
    Praha. Athabasca University Press
  • E.D. Blodgett (Author)
    A Pirouette and Gone. Buschek Books
  • E.D. Blodgett
    Apostrophes VII: Sleep, You, a Tree. University of Alberta Press
Reviewed by Neil Querengesser

In an age dominated by open poetic forms, E. D. Blodgett, Governor General’s award winner and Edmonton’s former poet laureate, creates within strict formal limits. The three books under review are limited to a few stanza patterns, with regularity not just in line length, but in metrics and syntax. In lesser poets, this could be a fault leading to sustained monotony, but as with Dickinson’s creative use of common metre, the effect is often illuminating and intellectually satisfying.

Sleep, You, a Tree is the seventh in Blodgett’s Apostrophes series. The poet addresses an unnamed listener in whose presence the meanings of these interrelated poems gradually evolve. Their imagery is often straightforward: stars, leaves, snow, and other natural images are ubiquitous, but each time they are transformed into an elegantly satisfying visual music that pulls the consciousness of the willing reader into a fresh perception of the connections among mind, language, and the world. The sixty-six poems (counting “Faces” twice) consist mainly of doubled seven-line stanzas that play upon technical aspects of the traditional sonnet. While the subtle repetitiveness of certain themes and images places a justifiably high demand on the reader’s concentration, many lines pay rich dividends, as these words on infinity: “the start / of it an echo of that other breath that God might have exhaled / when stars burst forth and suns fell out of space invisible to us.”

A Pirouette and Gone is a moving and disturbing book inhabited by children slipping into and out of a tenuous and tragic existence. Many of the poems appear to be set in drought-stricken Africa, but their often archetypal imagery can serve to locate them anywhere that innocents are neglected and abused. Although this book departs from some of the themes and techniques of Blodgett’s earlier work, the effects are otherwise similar. The repetitive untitled triplets with their often beautiful image variants may lull the readers at times but may just as suddenly shock their consciences into an awareness of their neglected responsibilities toward the helpless and suffering through verse that is simultaneously aesthetically powerful and engagée.

Finally, Praha, a beautifully designed book complemented and enhanced by several evocative paintings by Robert Kessner, comprises a sequence of elegantly wrought poems about Prague, a labour of love resulting from Blodgett’s deep attraction to that city’s culture, architecture, and history. While individual poems out of context often lack clear references to Prague, read as a sequence they offer illuminating insights into its influence on the poet. Each poem is carefully crafted with an eye and an ear to the nuances of manifold sensory and intellectual details, but as with Blodgett’s other collections, the reader must attend with all faculties to avoid a certain sameness of impression precipitated by the strict form. This collection is notable for Marzia Paton’s Czech translation opposite each original page, the quality of which readers of Czech may judge for themselves; strangers to that language with an ear for poetic cadences should at least be able to appreciate the translation’s inherent musicality.

This review “Formally Enlightening” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 138-39.

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