Other Voices

Throughout the four parts of Anne Compton’s Alongside, the reader witnesses the transfiguration of the emotional, intellectual, geographical, and seasonal realities of the poet-biographer and the poet-gardener. If the garden and library are “between the wild and domestic” (“Reading Around”), what seems to lie beyond life and death are the recurring italics—in dialogue with the vague “voice they have there” (“Bread”)—speaking from and about both closer and more distant pasts. The ongoing conversation with the dead turns the poetical word into a reversed psychopomp instrument, not accompanying the beloved (the Poet) into the afterlife, but allowing these voices from the hereafter a trip back to presence and utterance. In Alongside, which seems to be a metaphor for presence, memory and language are superimposed, generating figures of what has passed. Compton’s poetry as biography is a rewriting of life as cyclical time: the suggestion of an afterlife or a previous life conjoins the seasonal lives of the garden and the east coast.

The conventional diction, occasionally straddling the line between poetry and prose, and themes (love, nature, writing) remain fresh because of the poet’s experimentation with form. In “The tree in winter,” an unidentified tree is likened to a “sonnet without content.” One of the shorter poems in the collection at twelve lines, it reads like a sonnet, each line containing between ten and twelve beats. “Waste Places,” the final poem in Alongside, is a glossa, integrating a quatrain of lines from Canadian poet Don Domanski. Compton’s ability to bring life to clichés is one of her greatest strengths. In “Seeing Things,” the speaker’s late lover is not an eye-opener, but an “opener-of-eyes”; in “Thank-you note after a morning visit,” the tulips are “past-tense” rather than dead; and in “He was a beautiful man. What more needs to be said?” the speaker notes, “You were my South Shore and North Cape, / my East Point and West County lighthouse.” Compton manages to precipitate a discourse between reader and poem with language that is accessible enough to fulfill the casual reader, yet demanding enough to beg a second and third reading.

In Dante’s House—a collection of a dozen richly textured, visceral poems—Richard Greene is never far from the wheel. The first half of the book, containing eleven poems, takes on subjects such as the failing mental health of a mother, physical and psychological illness in a corrections facility, the social and economic devastation of Port-au-Prince following the 2010 earthquake, and, interestingly, a professional baseball game. Despite the apparent innocence of “Yankee Stadium”, the narrator admits, “That night Mussina / pitched a sinker—just to remind us / of the human condition, I suppose.”

While the titular piece, an epic-feeling narrative about a teacher-tourist in Italy coming to terms with a mother’s death, is written in “approximated” terza rima. The first poems are written in free verse. They are in no less control—both because of temporal distance, as is the case in “Oils,” a reflection about a mother who, after a troubling childhood, was “never / right afterwards, except perhaps in oils,” and because of a dream-like distance, indicative in the concluding lines of “A Moveable Feast” and “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”: “He yawns and walks towards / a tree at the pavement’s edge, gazes up / into leaves, tugs at elastic, pees”; “The sole of one / bare foot is caked in dust, his elbow up, / knuckles in his hair. His eyes are closed.”

The strict form of “Dante’s House,” a long poem in twenty-nine parts, successfully walks the thin line between emotional subtlety and melodrama. The narrator, an aging foreigner in Italy, says “Hours of walking tells more about my age / than Siena’s” instead of transgressing into self-pity and sentimentality. Likewise, instead of being destroyed by familial disorder, the narrator is “saved by books / that taught me other ways to hope.” Structured, rhythmical, impassioned: Dante’s House is an impressive follow-up to 2009’s Boxing the Compass.

Stephen Scobie’s At the Limit of Breath is a personal, literary homage to director Jean-Luc Godard’s oeuvre. Following the chronological order of Godard’s features, Scobie creates one poem for each movie, except for the title eponym, which opens and closes the book. Beginning with the epigraphs about self-reflexivity, Reverdy’s “distant and true” image paradigm, and the love of quotations, the reader is thrown into a poetical experience in the tradition of Godardian aesthetics. Paratextual elements, including final notes by Scobie, make sure the reader is guided through not only the maze of quotes and references, but also through the poet’s intentions and creative process.

Scobie captures Godard’s poetry (“The haunted face of Simone Weil / in Tarantula lighting, / playing a mother carrying a child / on the Odessa Steps”—“Film Socialisme”), interprets his filmic elements (“Alpha Soixante (his ruined voice) / who is made of Time, / who is destroyed by Time”—“Alphaville”), and translates the volatile essence of a movie (“Pierrot le fou”) or scene (“What you believe in the long conversation, / Matisse and Renoir on the wall, the tiny room / filled by a bed and William Faulkner”—“À bout de soufflé”). At times, the movies induce Scobie’s own memories and ideas (the first “Bande à part” and the second “Masculin féminin”).

The collection is held together by a dense net of recurring motifs—both intertextual and infratextual: the limit of breath, the wide screen, the train crossing the Bir Hakeim bridge, the Lac Léman, the old ocean, the image distant and true, and the words “lie to me.” The Godardian inspiration is not merely thematic, but the filmic style of the French enfant terrible also pervades the poetical structure in the two takes of “Le livre de Marie” and in the montagetechnique in “Histoire(s) du cinema.At the Limit of Breath is a textual space where Godard’s characters, places, images, and actors take on a Pirandellian existence, crossing borders of both poems and movies.

This review “Other Voices” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 141-42.

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