Four-Handed Poetry

Reviewed by Dale Tracy

Each collection reviewed here is played with four hands. Dean Steadman’s Après Satie: For Two and Four Hands and Sarah Bernstein’s Now Comes the Lightning each engage with a historical artist while Wendy McGrath’s A Revision of Forward comes out of a collaboration with printmaker Walter Jule. This four-handedness elicits a compassionate ethos for each collection.

Through poems whose titles summarize episodes of French music-hall singer Fréhel’s life, Now Comes the Lightning writes Fréhel as a character with depth and dignity. These poems show poverty, addiction, and celebrity without sensationalism. Moreover, the collection does not depend on the backdrop of war to generate emotion. Rather, it quietly dredges the poignancy of small moments and large through “[t]he days, the weeks, the months [that] wheel like searchlights across the sky” (“Fréhel Takes Elocution Lessons”). The collection is imbued with the softness of its cloudy weather and the richness of feeling such weather evokes. The included song lyrics, historical interludes, and dates help place the moments of Fréhel’s life in a collection driven much more by lyric than by narrative. This incorporated matter also serves to situate Fréhel firmly in her historical existence. Bernstein never tries to take us too fully into a reconstituted, imagined Fréhel; she does not pretend to know the essence of this woman, but instead sketches her, from a third-person perspective, with what is known, offering just enough of an inner consciousness to bring this person into readerly hearts. If what Fréhel sought from celebrity was “someone to see her, to trace her outline” (“Elocution Lessons”), these poems answer her wish.

McGrath’s A Revision of Forward is propelled by pattern. The collection’s experiments with repetition stay interesting from poem to poem by varying in kind and degree. The poems respond to the patterns of the prints that begin, end, and divide the book; create thematic patterns with repeated colours, words, topics, and settings; and follow the set patterns of fixed forms. The concluding title poem most directly explores the possibility of mirroring in a series of imperfectly reflecting poetic halves. While these poems demonstrate McGrath’s subtle use of sound and sense, I find her work with glosas most enticing. A glosa falling at the collection’s centre, “Balances,” could serve as a lens through which to understand the collection, with “repetition” in its first line and “loaded balance” in its last. McGrath explores the possibilities of poetic structures, those formal patterns that can be reset and tried again with new meaning. Like the title figure in “Carpenter” who “studies blueprints opened like sacred scrolls,” McGrath, with repetition, “conjures solid walls from lines on paper.”

Steadman’s Après Satie: For Two and Four Hands, a collection engaging French composer Erik Satie’s music and surrealist Paris milieu, is as various as its multiple hands would suggest. Prose poems respond to Satie’s song titles. For many of these, another set of hands takes the theme over into a different poetic form. Even within poems, response changes hands when an initial character sometimes leads readers away from a story we think we are entering; in “La Diva de l’Empire,” for example, the consciousness of an old man disappears as we follow his gaze into a dancer’s mind and her gaze into the loss an absent young man feels when she stops looking. Steadman builds emotional connection to all these characters, whether they are briefly present or recurring. His work with tone is as impressive as his carefully incorporated wordplay and formal experimentation. The comic and the poignant fit easily together, as concisely demonstrated by “The Parable of Worms (Vers de terre),” in which a man, taught humility by the gods, is “possessed of only two desires: / 1) to kill all the gods, and / 2) to be the whirring vibrato of the bee’s scented wings.” These poems do not exist to bear out a premise; each poem generates its own power without resting on the strength of the collection’s connections or concept. Nevertheless, the poems belong together, seeming to have spilled out of the recurring “o” that itself, in “La Danseuse et figures dans l’eau,” rolls into “the reader’s lap” and may be the “tonal centre” we learn, in the collection’s introductory poem, the “Velvet Gentleman” is missing.

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