Narrative Transparencies & Other Melodies

  • Robyn Sarah
    My Shoes Are Killing Me. Biblioasis (purchase at
  • Arleen Paré
    He Leaves his Face in the Funeral Car. Caitlin Press (purchase at
  • Michael Crummey (Editor)
    Al Pittman: Collected Poems. Breakwater Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Catherine Owen

Narrative intent is at the heart of these works by three poets at varying stages in their vocations: Arleen Paré closer to the “start,” Robyn Sarah long published, and Al Pittman deceased since 2001 and only now “seeing” his Collected Poems released. Sarah and Pittman in particular are concerned to be lucid and comprehensible at all times, though Sarah presents more of an affinity with form; Pittman’s style barely changes through his entire oeuvre, remaining plain-spoken lyrics, along the lines of a Pete Trower or an Al Purdy. Paré is also accessible though she frequently plays with the breath between lines and often offers the reader more of an ear for the particular music of poetry.

Sarah’s My Shoes are Killing Me, which won the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, is a mostly predictable assemblage of unassuming lyrics about common topics: time, mortality, family. Sarah’s aural gift is most potently apparent in her form poems, too few and far between in this collection. Pieces like “Spent” with the repeated initial refrain, “Afterwards, they slept,” the perfectly cadenced “Villanelle on a Line from WCW,” and the long sequential triadic stanzas of “Squares for a Patchwork Quilt” are brilliantly pared down to an intriguing mood as evidenced by even one stanza of the latter poem:

I don’t dote on every leaf the way I should.

We grew up in the very thick

of a smoke cloud. I think it is all smoke.

The resonances between don’t/dote, every/leaf, thick/think, and the slight but pungent melancholy sketched around then and now and the continuous presence of lack, are powerful. And lines from other poems such as “The past is hazardous / as well as treasure house,” or “the acid camaraderie of the office,” sing with that complex tune that should be the core of poetry. Unfortunately, as a line in “Squares” attests, “the problem is on the very edge of cliché,” and in many other poems, Sarah laxly falls into this typical abyss in which, aiming for the easily understood, she instead offers up the overly digested, in the manner of poems by Glen Sorestad or Allan Briesmaster. Such a well-lauded poet shouldn’t be getting away with so many well-trodden phrases. The snow is like a “threadbare cotton blanket,” there is not “a soul in sight,” yellow leaves are “clinging to a branch,” but it’s “all spilled milk now / no going back,” there’s all “the bells and whistles,” a farm offers a “breath of peace” and “a timeless place” while she “waits for her heart to find her.” And then there’s the title of the book itself. If Sarah was using these clichés ironically or as elements of “street speech” they would have their raison d’être, but otherwise they simply serve to diminish the energies of what could be poems that, like Anne Compton’s best, seek to etch a haunting vista of feeling in the mind.

Al Pittman, whose work was mostly self-published through Breakwater Books, the press he founded, now has all his poems collected in a sizeable tome from that same outfit. His books span two time periods: 1966-1978 and 1993-1999, though the latter poems feel just as dated as the former, nearly all being free form “salt of the earth” stories of youth, fatherhood, marriage, and the quaintly urban/rural realm of his native Newfoundland. Pittman is emotively engaging in individual pieces such as his widely anthologized “April,” “Confession,” and “Charmer,” in which he utilizes his gently evocative eye to provide moving, and near-Frostian, chants—“the woodpile, the fence, the chopping block”—or intimate silliness between lovers or even unlikely compatriots, as in the latter lyric, one of a few dedicated to Patrick Lane, that provide evidence of the poet’s satyr-like proclivities while allowing Pittman to dip into the coarse vernacular: “Well, I’ll be damned! / And I damn well would have been had I said anything like that / to anyone’s mother.”

His most potent love lyrics remind one of Creeley’s or even Cummings’, in impulse if not linguistically. Whether for his daughters, his wife, or a monarch butterfly’s “particular beauty” in “The Haunting,” with its “wings all crumpled / from [his] foot having stepped / suddenly upon him,” Pittman’s tone is always humble, never contrived, and panging with inevitability of mourning. Other strong poems in this nearly 400-page volume are “Shanadithit”, “Funeral,” “Poem For Marilee, Sleeping,” “Angelmaker”, “Song Also,” “Another Vesuvius,” “The Worst Birthday Gift I Ever Gave,” “The Dandelion Killers,” “What My Father Said about Sound,” “The Music in Your Mind,” and “Wanderlust.” His most essential pieces are in his 1978 book, Once When I was Drowning, dedicated to Alden Nowlan, a major influence. A preface would have been welcome to explain why there is such a major gap between this collection and 1993’s Dancing in Limbo.

Sadly, when Pittman sprawls out in lengthier poems during this era, he becomes blowsy and full of goofy exclamations like “Blessed is she among women!” or “Keep on dancing, kid!” Even in his final collection, 1999’s Thirty for Sixty, he continues to proffer moments of song as in the lines from “The Pink, White & Green”: “The waist-high hay falls away / in sea-green sheets with every swipe / of the stone-honed blade,” though the endings often collapse into themselves rather than zing to a close. Pittman was mainly a poet of the 1970s, and thus while it’s pleasurable to re-read his poems, a Selected of his most memorable would have done his vision more justice.

Arleen Paré’s “follow-up” to her stellar 2014 GG-award-winning Lake of Two Mountains isn’t quite as striking a volume, likely because it presents us with individual lyrics rather than an overtly linked sequence, albeit most focus on the theme of mortality. Yet He Leaves His Face in the Funeral Car is still rich with intensely realized poems, especially dealing with grief. Paré opens vigorously with an Elizabeth Bishop-styled, or perhaps P. K. Page-reminiscent, piece called “If this turns into story it’s gone too far.” Its opening lines, “They were butchering a sprawled deer / big as a Beauty Queen,” and closing images of “white curtains” and “frilly kale” that “emerald-greens all the bins,” combine to gouge a solidly compelling juxtaposition. “These are the Trials of Water” is possibly Paré’s most amazing poem to date. It begs to be recited like all the necessary poetry in the world. The openings of the first four stanzas are echoingly anaphoric: “That it weeps; . . . that it sleeps; . . . that it stains; . . . that it stinks.” The remainder of the piece writhes its startling sinuosities over the pages towards the poem’s “mouth” or conclusion, where water becomes “the longing to be unfettered, / the common wish to be released.”

The rest of this collection doesn’t quite attain such an exquisite pitch again, though a wealth of pieces still spring out: “Once,” “My Mother had no Winter Coat,” “In Nomine Dust” (the second most stunning poem in the book), the titular poem, “Interior: A brief history of landscape,” “Memorial on the Boulevard,” “Moonrind,” “Nine Reasons to Prefer the Pear” (though it’s a tad “Creative Writing School Exercise”), and “Fire Thorn.” Clichés such as “velvet glove” (though the delectable words “ankylosing” and “gibbous” otherwise save this poem too) and the “crows hunch” are rare, and it is often only minor inconsistencies in the decision to use caps or not from poem to poem that irks. Otherwise, Paré has written another worthy text that deepens our knowledge of the grief-terrain and regularly rises beyond merely telling into less-forgettable melodies.

This review “Narrative Transparencies & Other Melodies” originally appeared in Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 227 (Winter 2015): 175-177.

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