Tenants of Time

Reviewed by Marta Dvořák

Recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Governor-General’s Award (for The Stone Diaries), Carol Shields is best known for her novels and short stories. Yet two collections of her poems had appeared before she ever published a novel, as Nora Foster Stovel remarks in her remarkably comprehensive introduction to this first complete collection of Shields’ poetry. Stovel adds previously unpublished poems (from Shields’ archives in the National Library) to the three previously published poetry books. The first (Others, 1972) actually contains the writer’s earliest work—poems composed for a 1964 CBC competition, which she won. These already deflect the lyric poem from the self (its traditional focus) to the world.


The titles spotlight multiple subjects in the manner of a cartographer: “Grandpa Who Is Eighty,” “A Fiftyish Aunt,” “The Ferryman at Prince Edward County,” “Our Old Aunt Who Is in a Retirement Home,” “An Old Lady We Saw” who falls on ice, a small daughter (“Sara”) providing an ankle-level perspective. The metonymic agenda is also a philosophical one which involves filling the world, naming what or who is.  And what is, is more than just the visible. The poet processes actual observation with a vision of things in context, modified by perception. The old aunt whose memories “tremble like jellies,” who lives “from tray to tray, / briefly fingering / squares of cake” (27) is there in all her thickness of substance. So is time, blocking access to an intuited Pauline numinousness which Jan Zwicky’s sensitive preface underlines. In an ironic upset of stock associations, the poet remarks, “The final outrage, / not death, / but lingering / has begun” (27).  Attuned to the Romantics, notably William Blake, who saw “a World in a grain of sand” (Auguries of Innocence), Shields’ sympathetic identification with one individual extends to humankind and posits a gnomic truth. The world she engages with is one peopled by tenants of time. In a manifesto titled “Confession,” she admits indifference to landscape, the traditional channel for outpouring feelings and insights. “Mountains go flat / on me and trees fall,” but, she adds, “time’s tenanted chronicle / fills me full” (158). The writer invites you elsewhere to feel your way back “toward the exact / centre where history / and miracle intersect / announcing another beginning” (114), Perhaps in your living-room, where that philodendron “out-snakes the future” and “dreams of jungle space” (5). Shields clearly explodes Plato’s cave when she brings the Ferryman home from a family holiday, “captured alive . . . caught / by a click and locked / in a box” (7). By positing the startlingly real, tangible presence of the image, she addresses the relation between the existence of things and their apprehensibility.


The early poems already showcase how Shields’ writing operated and evolved within the international currents of the modernist and postmodernist literary scene. The very first poem, which opens Stovel’s collection, stages a collision between the banal and the uncanny, detachment and involvement, disclosure and concealment. The title, “A Woman We Know Who Suffers from Occasional Depression,” posits a localized narrator anchored in a realist space-time, who observes and describes. But the poem diffracts, and like an in-camera double exposure melds two voices and two viewpoints. You expect to view a woman  from the outside (she) but find yourself sucked inside a mind (“I”). What you get is not description but organic participation in experience. Engaging with the multiforms of the consciousness (that “bold weed” which “grows where it wants” [123]), the young Shields blasts realist space-time, the logic of day and night, supper and sleep, by coupling concrete particulars with impossible abstractions. (“I housekeep / in rooms of my making, squares / of reason stacked against the clock” [4]). Matter and manner collide in the closure which discloses chilling alterity in a matter-of-fact tone, and provides the textual impression-point giving articulation to the whole: “The trick / is to find the square / root of a clock tick / and hide there” (4).


Such a micro case study raises questions of craft and influence. Shields admitted to having written very derivative poetry when still a schoolgirl. You can detect a dialogue with literary predecessors throughout this collection, from Donne and Dickinson (conceits as riddles) to Auden and Pound (colloquial and imagist stances). This particular poem showcases Shields’ writing before an admiration for Philip Larkin induced her to sacrifice the musicality of rhyme. The rhyme scheme above, buttressed by consonance [k] yet unravelled by enjambments, is anything but mechanical.


Fracturing the sonnet form, Petrarchan and Shakespearean quatrains frame a delicately specular sestet (abccba) which deploys an intricate interlocking melody. Shields performs a mind’s free movement through the self-imposed limits of form and pattern, broken and remade like the poetry of T.S. Eliot, which haunts twentieth-century poetic production. Prufrock’s patient etherized upon a table inhabits Shields’ “Anne at the Symphony”: “She listens like someone submitting / to surgery; / and at twelve she’s quiet / under the knife, / stilled in ether” (14). Prufrock’s “Do I dare (disturb the universe / eat a peach)” is invited into the metatextual archived poem “Sonnet,” whose speaker playfully turns to, then rejects pre-texts defining love. Milton is dull, Byron too fiery, and Mrs. Browning overdoes it, so she wonders: “If none will satisfy to whom then may / I turn? Dare I trust myself?” (260). On an overt level the speaker emancipates herself from her models (“You alone / Can tell me what the poets have not known.” [260]). But all along, despite the modern conversational speaking voice and use of dramatic personae (practices which Eliot recycled from Donne and Blake), Shields cunningly conforms to a self-imposed constraint. By bending her language to the Shakespearean sonnet’s codes, in which pattern channels thought and generates invention, Shields positions poetry as an agonistic craft. A performance involving cognitive challenges, a taste for the difficult, and the pleasure of surmounting obstacles, which she shares with her audience. Uniting feeling and intellect in both image and conceit as vortexes through which ideas rush, Shields “doodle[s] a theory / of life” (14).

This review “Tenants of Time” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 6 Jul. 2022. Web.

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