Lyric Intimacy in Contemporary Canadian Poetry

  • Richard Therrien
    Sleeping in Tall Grass. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Ken Sparling
    This Poem Is a House. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Derek Webster
    Mockingbird. Véhicule Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

The lyric is alive and well in Canada, and here are three books that prove its enduring appeal. Each book explores intimacy, and the success of each one varies dramatically.

I appreciate Richard Therrien’s Sleeping in Tall Grass for its vulnerability, its intimate explorations of personal histories, family struggles, and the inevitability of both life and death. He offers vivid scenes, rich with feeling and emotional maturity, that give the reader powerful glimpses into the poet’s eye. That aspect of his text is not terribly surprising given that three epigraphs to his book (from Gwendolyn MacEwen, Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘Arabi, and Robert Bringhurst) foreground the importance of the “I”/“eye.” His epigraphs are commentaries on seeing through the individual eye, a reflection on (to borrow MacEwen’s word) the “carnival” that happens inside the mind. The epigraphs foreshadow the intimate spirit of Therrien’s book and his continuous effort to make his world vivid for the reader. That aspect of the poems is likely why his colourful treatment of the prairies captures sounds and sights with exactness; I could imagine Therrien in every scene, present on every page. There are many moments, too, in which Therrien gets the sound of his poems just right:

a thick sonorous breeze rides the drifts in from the hills

and above that   the sound of a swollen airstream

solid with celestial authority    a sigh so deep

it could only be coming from within.

Exploring the carnival of the mind, Therrien’s book is lyrical in the truest sense of the word: it is personal in every utterance, dialogic at times, and most certainly it is musical.

I did wonder at times, though, whether or not Therrien had struck enough of a balance between the intimate settings of the “I” and the broader world of his readership. I felt this especially in poems where Therrien switches to the second-person “you,” and even more especially in poems predicated on imperatives: “Follow the arc of the axe-head down the length of dried birch / hear the split opening up its own sigh of relief.” Don’t get me wrong: I love that image, that scene, and the sonic dance of every syllable. Yet there is always a risk in such poems that readers will be unable to picture themselves in these intimate and regionally specific scenes: the ability to bridge “I” and “you” is an essential feature of lyric. No doubt Therrien’s aim is to root his readers in these locales and emotions, but the landscapes will be unfamiliar to some and thus difficult to inhabit, even in vividly rendered and mellifluous poetry. The above is more a thought than a criticism, and it hearkens back to fundamental debates about the potential insularity of the lyric mode, of some of which contemporary poets must be aware.

For instance, I found Derek Webster’s Mockingbird to be especially insular as a volume that (in the words of the back-cover blurb) “tracks the aftershocks of a failed marriage.” Webster captures the musicality of traditional lyrics through his use of rhyming couplets in many poems:

Spread wings of a brained gull.

Drained and weather-beaten, dull.

 

A forest beetle struggles through the ash.

Open barrels of potash.

Couplets pepper not just this poem (“Grey”), but much of Webster’s book, and while some readers may appreciate them as nods to an earlier style, I found the rhyming wrenched and awkward, often verging on cliché. Take, for example, the closing couplet of “Grey”: “Wood-smoke’s listless curlicue— / what’s left of what you thought you knew.” Or the opening couplet of “Night Game”: “Homeruns can save. The bases clear / the windup monolithic as the year.” Webster strains for emotional depth and effective metaphors throughout the book, but I often felt unaffected:

Amy, I know you too well.

Your problems bury us like winter drifts.

Every night, another foot of pure white hurt

falls in the dark, smothering us.

Mixed with lines like these (from “Intervention”) are lines in other poems that sometimes struck me as unnerving, perhaps even inappropriate: “I like to lull myself to sleep / and turn to her. No one else / will guard her as she sleeps.” There may be more to these lines than I saw, but the image of a man guarding a woman while she sleeps shows, at best, self-centredness and, at worst, chauvinism. Readers may struggle to identify with such scenes.

Webster’s book is difficult to review because I believe in the importance of his subject and the reality of the painful experiences of the lyric “I.” But however much I sympathize with that “I,” the poems feel too much for him and not enough for his audience. Likewise, as much as I can appreciate a poet exploring traditional poetic structures, such pristine structures capture neither the emotional turmoil of the poetry nor the spirit and forms of modern poetry since 1950. There may be genuine emotion and an evident literary knowledge underpinning Webster’s collection, but I rarely felt his poems could challenge a contemporary audience already familiar with motifs of pain, loss, resilience, and emotional rebuilding that pervade English-language poetry.

Ken Sparling’s This Poem Is a House is, in complementary ways, a much more challenging book about family and home. Not lyric in the strictest sense, but still somehow lyrical, Sparling’s text is generally a pleasure to explore: his delicate tone, the meticulous construction of each scene, and the philosophical depth of his lines make it so. There is ambiguous joy, too, in his paradoxical pairings, which capture the exact sensation of being part of a family: security/fragility, connection/disconnection, safety/fear, belonging/alienation, and so on. There is no way to summarize this collection—it has no narrative; it cloudily builds a fluid home—except to say that it is a love letter to the true weirdness of a house. One moment, “the boy” (Sparling’s foil to “the girl,” the second of the two central characters) will feel “reassur[ed],” but then, this:

the girl came

down the stairs like something spit

out of a cloud. She stood

before the boy like some terrible storm.

The shifts in mood, attitude, scene, and home keep the two central figures moving. They often pace an amorphous house, and they constantly rearrange furniture: “Do you think we could move the kitchen / table into the living room?” I loved the architecture of the poems, the sensation of a house being built and dismantled, levelled and rebuilt, secured and then threatened.

At the same time, I did occasionally feel Sparling was putting too much weight on ambiguous symbols in passages such as this: “He scratched his chin, which was covered / in stubble. He was tired. He had not seen the angel / in what seemed like years.” The “angel” (perhaps a nod to the motif of “the angel in the house”) is a recurring symbol, and yet I found it awkwardly mystical in poems that are already made delightfully odd by vibrant imagery: furniture in trees, papers filed in ovens, pitch-black attics, or cigarette smoke curling its way across a room. Indeed, I loved most Sparling’s surprisingly grounded, if complex and enigmatic, imagery of the home; I enjoyed least his mystical symbolism, as well as his heavy rhetorical questions that rarely stirred or engaged me as much as the crystalline imagery of domestic scenes. Sparling’s book is very much a collection of these scenes, and, as such, it deliberately lacks momentum or crescendos. Instead, one finds slices of life that, for some, may seem too disconnected, whereas others may appreciate Sparling’s aleatory and scenic rhythm and his occasional echoes, parallelisms, and shy nods. The purposeful incoherence of the book is enchanting.

Great lyric poetry occupies a space between ease and difficulty—because too much of either will push readers away. Such poems, too, draw readers in by avoiding the potentially alienating effect of overly intimate poetry. The effectiveness of lyric depends on the poet’s ability to extract from intimate scenes something inscrutably relatable and vitally human, a move beyond what matters most to the poet and a chance to imagine and render what matters to the reader. These poets—Therrien, Webster, and Sparling—evidently see something universal in their poetry, and their success in rising above the intimacy of personal reflection varies as much as their styles, forms, and voices.



This review “Lyric Intimacy in Contemporary Canadian Poetry” originally appeared in Canadian Literature: 234 Eclectic Mix (Autumn 2017): 179-181.

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