In Still Water

Reviewed by Emily Wall

The new books of poetry by Elizabeth Ross’s, Barry Dempster, and Monty Reid are refreshingly good. The three poets each have a respect for language and an eye for vivid images. They are keenly aware of the readers they are talking to and are clearly hoping to give us moments of real attention and quiet. Reading their poems feels like an invitation to pause for a while, to meditate, to shed our clothes and slip into the cool water.

To read Ross’s Kingdom is to swim through pure pleasure. She is a master of walking the line between pure lyric and the core of narrative. Many of her poems exist in that space where sharp images meet snippets of story. One of her real strengths is in never trying to tell us anything. She shows us instead, and in the spaces between images we find story and meaning. “Subdivision” is one of the strongest poems. “After you drowned, / my mother made me take / swimming lessons” is juxtaposed with “You saw the glass / edge of the surface. Sunlight / dropped a splintered ladder down.” It’s the estuary of images, all rushing in, that creates fertile emotional ground. The last section of the book, “Kingdom,” takes us on a wave of adrenaline. We have a long rush of dark images and hard moments: bowling alley violence, a dead elephant, a burned turkey. And then we rush into the poem “Kingdom,” which brings the book to its emotional climax in a moment of quiet beauty: “Where the sky is a path firs brush clean.” In this collection, Ross gets it exactly right.

Dempster’s poems take us swimming in a warm lake on a warm day. He has a gift for pulling up the little fish of language. The images we ignore—shredded Kleenex, cheap beer, a waxed bikini line—he makes us notice. Some of his best poems touch on the idea of God—they are a sweet blend of irreverence and belief. Like Mary Oliver, Dempster strives to make the divine present: “God was installing Eden / and slipped.” His language is precise and fresh: “so hungry I could eat my weight in wings.” Perhaps the strongest poem in the collection is the first, “A Circle of White Deck Chairs.” The play of imagination, rich and deep, begins to help us think about the human condition. It opens the book on an exciting note, but the rest of the collection doesn’t quite live up to its promise—we wish for a little more depth, more imaginative inquiry. While the poems have moments of real beauty, at times we also have the sense that there’s nothing deeper beneath us. We miss the pull of tension and darkness, and the desire to touch something profound.

Reading Reid’s poems is a joyful experience. He reminds us of Billy Collins or the playful poems of Dean Young. His humour and whimsical nature are apparent in each of the book’s nine poems, which are divided into short sections. The use of white space brings a particular attention and quiet into the collection, framing each moment—the poems are little islands in the sea of quiet around them. Reid’s poems feel Zen-like in that regard, except that rather than exploring the natural world or focusing on deep spirituality, they are whimsical and focus on ordinary things—tweezers, drywall, or a navel:

Every night a deep spring

fills the small pool of my navel.

In the soft hours all the thirsty animals

come down to drink

Reid has two very fine moments when he concentrates on everyday objects—a cork and a shirt. In “Household Goods: Cork” he writes that the object is “punctured / at one end / and stained at the other . . . and now there is nowhere / to go back to.” That moment, coming out of levity and ordinariness, creates an emotional shock for the reader. In a poem about a woman hanging her partner’s shirts on the line, Reid writes:

Late in the afternoon she gathered them in,

pressing them to her face,

taking in that crisp but unmistakable smell

of no one

Again, there’s a shock of the colder, deeper water we long for. It’s stunning.

All three books are strong collections: meditative, focused, masterful in their use of image and syntax. The poems invite us to wade in, lean back, and feel the wash of language around us. They give us still moments in which to think about placentas, elephants, Barbie dolls, and the beautiful moles of a lover. To open the books is to give yourself the gift of attention, to float in the still water of the poems.

This review “In Still Water” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 142-143.

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