Gaspereau in the Community

Reviewed by James Gifford

Every Gaspereau book, like some bowed or plucked string, relies on the tension between poetry and its presentation to make its unique music resonate. Madeline Bassnett, Karen Houle, and Peter Sanger show this strongly. Sanger’s Odysseus Asleep collects previously published materials from the past twenty-three years and adds “Odysseus Awake” to conclude. Each of the book’s six sections play with form, repeating a singular structure in theme and variations. The “Stone Notes” section seems akin to fragments from antiquity, while “Kerf” repeats a two-stanza form throughout, for which the sixth poem hints at the formal concerns, opening with “the earth is a tree” and closing with the inversion back to “roots into branches” but with a repeated mid-line caesura and internal rhyme that show the “three songs” of the world as a form of reversion, circling back inward upon themselves with some Homeric departure and return encoding the structural loop. The opening poem of “Ironworks” likewise shows iron’s circling life of extraction, fashioning, dancing, rusting, and return, but with “a space / between epochs” echoing in each line’s varying syntax, dependent on the reader’s interpretation of caesura. The closing and opening of the fourth and fifth poems make a similar monism, with “[t]he last voice of iron is rust” becoming “the touch of iron … / where bright transmutation / sublimes the slag from an aeon.” The final section, the new “Odysseus Awake,” begins with something like the Nostoi between departure and return, as Odysseus “dreams himself / awake” in the opening stanza until he “awakens in Ithaca” in the closing, again circling before the final statement of “tercet” (120) that again draws the reader back to form itself, giving the voice to the poem’s music as much as to its journey away as the return home.

Houle’s The Grand River Watershed is also a collection of journeys, in this case through Ontario, and as she remarks in the acknowledgements, “Fall Asters” previously appeared in ArtsEverywhere and A/J: Alternatives Journal accompanied by essays on her method. These discussions of method are extremely helpful for the reader, and both are conveniently accessible through the journals online. This foregrounds the ecopoetic and ecocritical paradigms at work, ranging from poetically retracing or echoing invasive species, or what appears in “Was thick with pine and hardwood forests” as a division of voices. In this poem, the impulse to inventory alienates the traveller from nature like the Enlightenment error of making the world an object upon which reason works, here with a source text providing materials reformulated in a dialectic aligned with each margin, as if between these gutters of the page (or banks of the stream) the white of the page flows like the river itself. This leads in “When North Flows South” to the conflicting registers of a scientific stochastic method that struggles to recognize the purposeful or the spontaneous organization of the natural world. By clearly marking out her source texts through citational annotations, Houle guides the reader toward conflicts and self-reflection, such as “The genetic integrity of native species does not appear threatened / by the introduction of domestics” anticipating the stanza “For the most part,” which points to an invasive fungus while textually pressing hard on settler colonialism. This trio of concerns—the lyrical subject observing yet generally absent from the scene, the natural world, and settler colonialism inextricably bound up with an invasive rationalism—recurs throughout the collection in varying form. And through all this, the river flows, in a sense like the anarchic current envisioned by Joyce as stream of consciousness: the flow itself is that subject, not the banks that shape it or the ever-changing waters. Here, rather than a stream of consciousness, an akin effacement of that rational subject opens space for the particular and the evanescent rather than the generalizable and the universal. This flow is most overt in “Stream Loggers” with its epigram from Wittgenstein, as if “the basic idea of creek” can be set aside to prefer the “expansion and contraction, / drainage and seepage, / discharge and infiltration” of the creek itself, which adheres to no universal “basic idea” or rationalist generalization that would abandon the localized, self-transforming, and protean experience.

Finally, Bassnett’s Under the Gamma Camera gives a different interaction with the self, the particular, and the rationalist by narrating the quotidian experiences of illness, treatment, and recovery. The sense is of the self-become-object upon which rationality imposes the exercise of reason, and against which the particular of one life’s experiences stands in contrast. Bassnett signals a capacious theme, offering intimacy in the experience of illness and remission that is startlingly paired with poetic exploration of allusion, as if the observing personality is still part of community: “the tubers still / nestled” only two pages before crabs with their “sideways scuttle” seem tantalizingly like Eliot’s The Waste Land and “Prufrock.” Yet, this shifts remarkably in the sets of poems on Biblical sin, with the intimacy of embodied experience in “Gluttony” with “I am all stomach, / a cavern of need.” The detachment then returns but is denied with the immortal cancer cells in “A Patch of Immortality.” Here there are “jellyfish cells / reseeding the ocean floor to start again, / polyp to medusa to polyp” and while deadly also cast with a quasi-maternal birth, a tumor that is

withered cells shedding

casings like moths, fibrous cocoon


split and discarded, new wet body

launched into the world.

This drawing of beauty out from fear and illness unfolds remarkably in Under the Gamma Camera, linking malignancy with fecundity of mud and earth in the final set of poems “In Praise of Small Things,” the title for which blurs the difference between malignancy and day-to-day pleasure.

Every Gaspereau book sings, and these collections echo cycles of tensions and repose, an antiphonal series of echoes, each intermingling the individual voice and the ensemble.

This review “Gaspereau in the Community” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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