Never Enough Sad Poems?

  • Marilyn Bowering
    What is Long Past Occurs in Full Light. Mother Tongue (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Susan Glickman
    What We Carry. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Marita Dachsel
    There Are Not Enough Sad Songs. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Crystal Hurdle

These fine collections focus on loss—Dachsel’s is even dedicated to “those I love / to those I’ve lost”—and offer daunting catalogues of the dead: parents, in-laws, grandparents, fellow writers, children of residential schools (Bowering), and marital happiness (Dachsel), as well as several animals (Glickman notes that “nearly 500 species” have recently been cited as extinct). These are not works by, about, or for millennials. Wisdom of both the aging and the ages shines through.

Wistfully, they explore growing older and what comes next—or doesn’t. Dachsel observes her kids’ “new departures” at a carnival and fears that she may have “run out of firsts—the ones that glow, / that bring joy.” Bowering looks to the beloved “Cove” where she used to swim: “I will not say more about age / but why take everything // by force [?]” In her penultimate poem, “D Minor (Not Going to the Galapagos),” Glickman attempts a positive spin. She begins: “[w]ith more time behind you than ahead / the world grows larger, pregnant with wonder”—and, as she compares her girlhood self to the woman now, she concludes: “[u]nlike her, you are not immortal.” The last poem, “What We Carry,” notes the inevitability of movement from “a cradle, a cot, a single bed, a double bed, a single [institutional] bed again.”

Despite the gloomy prognoses, however, the books offer guarded hope in the natural world. Glickman’s striking sensory poems are tightly controlled, even choreographed, with music in sections one, three, and five—loose, exquisite “translat[ions]” of many Chopin preludes. Part two, five “Elegies for the 21st Century,” balances the “Five Urban Salutations” of part four. Historical and mythological richness imbues the text with unexpected humour, as when Clytemnestra shows rage by “fl[i]ng[ing] plates / at Agamemnon.” “May Day” (horrifying equivocation) concentrates on the unnecessary deaths of factory workers in Bangladesh. Imagery, as with the unexpected tenor becoming vehicle in “a scarlet peony sheds its petals / like a woman shrugging off her fur coat,” intimates the importance of nature over humans.

Dachsel’s more ribald images (“watering with urine” might be beyond “neighbourly”) are jolting and rich. “[S]huswap july” is impolite and “sexy” with “terrible hair, and joy / that looks like pain.” “[S]wing therapy” recounts early sexual desire without its attendant vocabulary: “[f]ace to the moon / open and soaring, tethered to you.” In the humorously titled “a sonnet for middle-age mothers,” Dachsel slyly describes new lovers as “explorer[s]”; the mother is tired of having been “colonized by others.” She exposes the kids’ so-called “quarrelling” for what it really is: “screaming, punching, kicking, // raging for blood.” The bodily, piece-by-piece disappearance of a middle-aged woman is itemized in the blackly comic “check for spots.” Wisdom can be learned from trees, which sometimes “break” rather than “bend”—in one striking poem, a “creep[y]” man has been transformed into a tree.

Many of Bowering’s pieces offer spare and throat-catching conclusions. “Coffin Island” is one of several concentrated poems offering the plot, characterization, sensibilities, and time-sequencing of a novel. Arresting bird imagery and descriptions of nests both natural and girl-made offer haunting possibility. Why did the school friend drown? Also affecting (but perhaps better in a separate chapbook) is “Woof—at the Door—Woof,” a too-long elegiac suite, illustrated by Ken Laidlaw, with an afterword, about the death of her dog Tessa. Bowering explains: “inconsolable grief is what it is.” In “Truth and Reconciliation,” she repeats “I am grief.” She uses a range of unusual voices, such as Emily Carr’s in “Woods”: “nothing could ever extinguish / the art of this green Earth, / as long as I did.”

The excellent penultimate poem, “The Writers’ Museum” (also the title of the final section), for Stephen Reid, juxtaposes sweetness, direct address, the personal, and the political. The heartbreaking imperative to “[i]magine” resonates “in the company of objects left behind” (as does Glickman’s “What We Carry,” with the obdurate thinginess of things). Bowering writes: “[i]magine a door in the writers’ museum / through which everything lost / is recovered.”

Imagination and hope, at least, are not extinct. In “down under,” Dachsel, in a “mirrored life,” notes that perception is all. Bowering in “The Consolation of Philosophy” reminds us that an answer to “What is Happiness?” is “‘Look up! See those trees!’” Glickman offers a similar response in “F♯ Major (Firelight Spirea)”—a full garden has no room for weeds (like the persistent invasives of Bowering’s “Wild”), so she concludes, beautifully: “just / let / everything / in.”



This review “Never Enough Sad Poems?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Feb. 2020. Web.

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