Poems of the Leafy Mind

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

“This shaking keeps me steady,” wrote the American poet Theodore Roethke in “The Waking.” In that villanelle, all’s misalliance, topsy-turvy: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go.” But time and experience, the poem suggests, will reveal the right path, faith in the numinous world leading to destinations unknown: “God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, / And learn by going where I have to go.” Roethke is not one of the sundry poets named in Steven Heighton’s The Waking Comes Late, but the similar titles of old poem and new book—a happy coincidence—correspond to a resemblance in theme. In poems of self-discovery in middle age, Heighton writes of hard-won knowledge and searches for wisdom that could change the course of his days. He examines CAT scans, “[m]ost intimate / of portraits, yet / clinically impersonal,” to see himself injured and healing; he confronts death to muse upon frailty and disappointment. “Each day I wake feeling I’ve already failed,” begins a poem “Inspired by a Line by Paul Celan.” (The next line proposes a cure for despondency: “Tonight let’s get wrecked and call it Venice.”) In “The Waking Comes Late,” comprehension of beauty’s particularity replaces youthful ignorance: “in those days he assumed all evergreens / were ‘pines,’ or ‘spruce,’ whatever, / beyond his ego’s stunted reach it was all whatever.” But “[n]ow he believes little matters more / than knowing right names”: landscapes console, hallowed words allowing the world’s splendours to be perceived.

As the nod to Celan implies, Heighton looks across the Atlantic for touchstones. His collection is inhabited by Seféris, Mandelstam, Kaváfis, Trakl, Karyotákis, Akhmatova, and Mallarmé, whose poems he translates or emulates. Robert Lowell’s Imitations (1961) is an important antecedent, and P. K. Page’s Hologram (1994) a Canadian precursor, even if Heighton’s translations hew closer to their originals than Page’s glosas to their inspirations. One of Heighton’s interlocutors, the Spanish poet Villalta, is as mysterious as Andreas Karavis, the fictitious Greek poet of David Solway’s Saracen Island (2000). (I make the comparison to Solway gingerly and on strictly poetic grounds.) Explaining his method, Heighton suggests that The Waking Comes Late fulfills the ambition of earlier volumes: “My last two poetry collections, The Address Book and Patient Frame, both end with a section of ‘approximations’—free translations of poems by various authors modern and ancient, renowned and obscure. In this new book, I’ve opted not to sequester the translations but instead to integrate them with my own poems.” As Marjorie Perloff noted of Lowell and Ezra Pound, such approximations depend “finally upon the poet’s ability to make the past present.” The contemporaneity of Heighton’s translations is demonstrated by their parallels with his other poems. A version of Cavafy’s bleak “The City” is followed by “Wheat Town Beer-Leaguer, Good Snapshot, No Backhand,” a fantasy of escape from “the fakery / and fuckery of culture”: “Sometimes gladly I would skate away / from the simian prattle in my prefrontal lobe, / the desolate sierra of Mandatory Reads.” But Cavafy’s dour warning looms: “there’s no ship out for you, no road away.”

If T. S. Eliot was right that no vers is libre for the poet who wants to do a good job, then perhaps no translation is truly free either. Heighton contends that his translations and originals arise alike “from a single period and process of reading and pondering, writing and revising”—they are “two worlds rhymed to one,” in a phrase from “Late Couplet,” a sonnet about the sonneteer Thomas Wyatt. As if to evoke authorial obsession—“writing and revising”—The Waking Comes Late is repetitive by design. Thus the first lines of “‘¡Evite que sus niños . . . !’”—“On the shrink-wrapped shoreline a mourner / sits shiva for the seas”—reappear in “Thalassacide,” a “madman” taking the mourner’s place. But although Heighton’s poems are weighted by midlife’s millstones, chilled by midwinter’s grind, they glint with memorable images and figures: “the dog with her large-array ears / who’s loyally listening” (“After the CAT Scan”); “a month-long crimson tide, / as if the blighted sea were bleeding out” (“A Cosmos”); “bare heels / impastoed with pinesap” (“Arenosa”). He lingers on infirmity, death, the traumas of war, and the world’s end, treating enduring themes with skill and compassion.

M. Travis Lane’s books, from An Inch or So of Garden (1969) to Crossover (2015), span nearly half a century. With The Witch of the Inner Wood, Shane Neilson (as editor) and Goose Lane (as publisher) have performed a genuine service by assembling her long poems and throwing into relief one facet of her sizeable body of work. A fervent admirer of the “diminutively potent firebrand,” Neilson celebrates Lane’s writing and makes bold claims for its significance: “Since 1969, Lane has written in a relative Canadian wilderness, championing subjects and themes that have only become more important as the years pass. Taken in context with her great poetic skill, what you have in your hands is a remarkable book that is, if not an alternative to the narrative of the long poem in Canada, certainly an addition to it.” His enthusiasm is catching, but Lane’s poetry is its own best advertisement, and The Witch of the Inner Wood should renew awareness of her investigations of the world’s secrets: “The evening, like an empty hand, / seems portent with meaning, unsayable,” she writes in “To Persevere” (from Touch Earth, 2006). Neilson’s introduction concentrates on Lane’s involvement in the Long-liners Conference of 1984, her position vis-à-vis the poets included in Michael Ondaatje’s The Long Poem Anthology (1979) and Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology (1991, 2001), and the environmental (and specifically ecofeminist) dimensions of her poetry. In her afterword, Lane herself is generous in defining the relevant term: “The ‘long poem’ is not a ‘form,’ but it is structurally different from a short poem, insofar as a short poem tends to seize upon a single incident, while a long poem carries on further. In the absence of anything other than duration as a criterion, I propose that a poem which takes at least five minutes to read out loud is long.”

Like Heighton, Lane often engages in dialogue with the literary past. In Book Three of “Divinations” (from Divinations and Shorter Poems 1973-1978, 1980), the quotation of Hopkins’ “The Windhover”—“sheer plod,” “Shine sillion”—makes plain her spiritual and poetic sensibilities. The questing Eliot of Four Quartets skulks in “The Seasons” (from Reckonings: Poems 1979-85, 1988), not least because of a shared Atlantic geography; in “Fall,” Lane is concerned with coastal New Brunswick. “The groaner only calls us to ourselves”: her readers will remember that in “The Dry Salvages” Eliot glossed the noun, for the benefit of landlubbers, as “a whistling buoy.” Allusion alone is not the point, but Lane’s telltale echoes resound, proffering contexts for her precisely rendered observations. In “Summer,” her description of a boggy shore—“Tide’s out. The river’s turned to mud. / The gulls prowl in the bladderwrack”—leads to a pastoral proposition. “To live as if the moment were a whole / and wholly in the moment”—this “is heart’s desire.” Showing length to be no impediment to clarity and pith, Lane’s Collected utterly rewards the reader’s attention.

This review “Poems of the Leafy Mind” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 145-147.

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