Immense Precision

Reviewed by Laura Cameron

“An immense precision is necessary,” observes Edward Carson in “Landscape,” the second poem in Birds Flock Fish School. It is with “immense precision” that the land meets the sky on the line of the horizon in that poem; and so too it is with “immense precision” that Carson, Deena Kara Shaffer, and Laurelyn Whitt craft their poetic lines in the three volumes reviewed here. All three collections offer poems meticulous in their language and imagery, and vast in the philosophical questions and natural truths that they explore.

Birds Flock Fish School is preoccupied with the invisible energy that leads birds to flock and fish to school. Throughout the volume, Carson considers the ways in which this energy might be, or is, imitated in the human world. “We long to give ourselves over to its might / to find in its flow something to find ourselves,” the speaker remarks in “Undercurrents.” We also “long,” I think, to “give ourselves over” to the clean, lyrical rhythms of Carson’s poems. Almost all composed of six couplets each, they are loosely ghazal-like: and indeed, in their insistent pursuit of illumination in the realms of “fish” and “birds,” they find an obvious Canadian literary precedent in Phyllis Webb’s 1984 volume of (anti) ghazals, Water and Light. Carson’s limber movement from image to image, couplet to couplet, emulates the mind in action: these poems think vigorously, on behalf of the entire human community. The impersonal grandeur of the collective “we” assumed by the poems leads to sweeping statements and occasionally lends an awkward vagueness to the otherwise precise poetry, but what that “we” sees always dazzles—like snow falling in the morning light, “an intelligent patience filling the air.”

The speaker in Deena Kara Shaffer’s debut volume is definitely an individual rather than a collective, and yet the poems gesture towards the shared experiences that make us human. The Grey Tote unfolds a deeply personal map of the corners and corridors and gaping spaces of grief: of the speaker’s grief for her parents, taken by cancer. The book is about the process of dying, and also about the process of going on living after a loved one has departed. Shaffer’s treatment of grief is subtle, stirring, playful, tragic, eloquent, and never self-indulgent. Her poems resound with the hugeness of small things, such as “putting paperwork in order” or remembering to refer to the dead in the past tense, “now that now / has no them in it.” The “grey tote” of the title is a “generational satchel,” a bag passed from family member to family member, carried along to the hospital for a birth, and carried along too for a death: the baggage of first and final and everyday journeys. Handed down to Shaffer’s speaker, it becomes a “miscellany bag” holding the “gear” of her “not yet adventures.” At first it “sits buried in the closet’s corner” as she heals and wonders, “Will I ever get there — / to when poise and terminality coexist”? Certainly “poise and terminality coexist”—as do beauty and illness, grace and grief—in Shaffer’s poems that she has brought out into the world in “The Grey Tote.”.

In Tether, Laurelyn Whitt is fascinated by memory. Her poems dwell on the unpredictable permanence or ephemerality of things: of cultures, languages, myths, religions, stories, and of human and animal lives. Like Carson, she is interested in thinking, in the nimbleness of the mind that imagines and the mind that remembers: in thoughts that are untethered and thoughts that are tethered. Prayers, she writes, leap ahead, “[u]ntethered from thought and language . . . a step into the simple.” Memories, on the other hand, often operate as “[f]elt thought”: “thought become // membrane, tethered to touch.” The poems in Tether modulate tonally with as much flexibility as that thinking mind. Thematic coherence is the price of such modulations, and these are poems to be tasted one at a time rather than gulped all at once. But even as she takes on weighty topics—immigration, assimilation, poverty, imprisonment—Whitt cultivates a quiet energy that compels our empathy.

All three poets operate likewise. Whatever the immensity of their subjects, Whitt, Shaffer, and Carson all prove particularly captivated by—and adept at evoking—hushed intensity: moments that make “palpable,” as in Whitt’s poem by that title, “the hush of pine needles / as they fall to earth, // of wind that shifts in the cedars.” These moments, and the poems that contain them, ask softly and urgently for our attention. And we should listen carefully.

This review “Immense Precision” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 135-36.

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