Gifts for the Journey

Reviewed by Neil Querengesser

These three volumes are evidence, if we indeed needed it, that some of Canada’s best poetry is still being written by its senior poets. All three books embody a much-needed compassionate wisdom for those—all of us—travelling into our planet’s uncertain future.

Henry Beissel’s poems range widely across familiar topics—the ever-changing and renewing seasons, matters of love, growing old—but always with a sense of the deeper truths to be found beyond their aesthetic pleasures. Some, such as “Find the Mot Juste,” are powerful calls for ethical responses to injustice. “Greenfield” is a compelling elegy for a once-thriving Ontario village, the collection’s title and its larger cosmic themes deftly and vividly woven into the verse. Elsewhere, Beissel exhibits keen insight into the characteristics of larger-than-life figures. “A Wake for Fidel” acknowledges both the greatest strengths and the most crippling weaknesses of the former Cuban leader. “Don Juan on his Deathbed” is a masterpiece of psychological insight. The dominant theme of this collection, however, concerns the poet’s deep awareness and understanding of the alarming environmental problems that beset us in the Anthropocene, human-caused crises, vividly portrayed in poems like “Untimely Blizzard,” “Changing our Planet,” and “Contested Celebration.” Beissel paints the terrifying reality of the fires now burning constantly across our planet—“[t]he world is on fire and we are / its arsonists”—as well as the prospect of death by water:

[f]ragile as a canoe in a tsunami

we must face the iceberg of our ignorance

and leave nature to correct our blunders.

These are separate from yet intimately related to the book’s final section, “Footprints of Dark Energy (The Seventh Elegy),” a continuation of the six-elegy cycle Seasons of Blood published eight years earlier. Reflecting the current physical theory that our universe is made up almost entirely of dark energy and matter, the elegy contends that the five per cent of the cosmos we can perceive is “as you and I are / footprints of dark energy.” It ranges between past and present, the old world and the new, war and peace, cruelty and compassion, not sparing a bleak vision of our future, but offering at the end a possibility of redemption through the powers of “the yearning heart.” Beissel understands the essence of both science and poetry, which he exhibits to great effect, reminding us that “this is no planet for the faint of courage,” but also pointing the way to where that courage may be found and drawn upon to stem our looming collective crisis.

The thirty-six poems in Lorna Crozier’s The House the Spirit Builds were inspired by and are juxtaposed with photographs taken by Peter Coffman and Diane Laundy in and around Wintergreen Studios’ retreat in eastern Ontario’s Frontenac Arch biosphere. The photographs themselves are masterful, and both poems and pictures derive even greater value from each other. The tone is contemplative, meditative, each poem distilling from its corresponding picture a textual essence to move the mind and spirit. There are odes to amphibians, meditations on insects, and riffs on still life. “Three Oranges in a Red Bowl” evokes for the poet a summer of first love in southern Italy, destined for a sweet ending by the fall. “Nom de Plume” is a whimsical riff on the feather-like foliage of various plant species and the plumes of the tiny creatures that the poet imagines “flickering above,” particularly the “splendid palpita snout,” causing her to exclaim, “[t]hat’s it. My old name’s gone.” While the photographs inspire the poems, the poems certainly inspire the reader to see these same photographs in new and satisfying ways. For example, a thin black line in a concrete mosaic elicits these opening lines, “[c]heck out the worm (is it a worm?— / . . . ) that looks / like a rusted spike,” which suddenly metamorphose to a supremely compressed Bildungsroman of a carpenter’s apprentice grown to magician. The book ends with “Prayer,” a litany for small animals of this biosphere and everywhere. Like the other two books in this review, the poems sing out to us that we are not the only species on this planet, softly proclaiming the importance of seeing both the beauty and the necessity of our fellow creatures. The reader should draw delight, inspiration, and wisdom from every page in this fine collection.

James Deahl’s Travelling the Lost Highway purports to take readers down roads less travelled, but once on the journey they may recognize what has long been forgotten. Coming of age in the US but making Canada his home for the past half century, Deahl has literally and metaphorically travelled many lost highways, within and between both countries. A spirit of retrospection lives in many of these poems, poems that honour, among many things, the virtues of nature, the tender aspects of human relationships, the joy of a new marriage, and the ghostly dignity of abandoned workers, factories, and towns. Some poems surprise: imagine the poet discussing Emily Dickinson with Harry Truman and Michael Wurster in a Pittsburgh café on the cusp of Big Steel’s decline. Orchards, churches, sunsets, winter and summer storms, constellations, changes of season, classical music, and wild flora and fauna flourish and delight throughout the collection. Poignant elegies and tributes abound, for the likes of Raymond Souster, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Patchen, Phyllis Webb, Michael Bullock, and others. But perhaps the deepest sense of loss is expressed in Deahl’s various laments for “the dead nation of [his] birth,” a country to which, despite living in the border city of Sarnia for many years, he has apparently refused to travel since the last presidential election. Overall, this is a very rewarding collection, embodying a wide range of emotions, spiritual and physical longings, and, despite the troubling note of the concluding poems, an affirmation of goodness that can still be found on journeys down lost highways.

This review “Gifts for the Journey” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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