The Art of Losing

Reviewed by Sara Jamieson

Recent studies like Priscila Uppal’s We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy and Tanis MacDonald’s The Daughter’s Way: Canadian Women’s Paternal Elegies testify to a growing interest in the representation of loss, grief, and mourning in Canadian poetry. Four new poetry collections by Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Evelyn Lau, Jenna Butler, and Patrick Friesen all contribute to the conversation on matters elegiac currently being conducted among Canadian poets and critics alike. While they vary widely in form and content, meditating in diverse ways on the deaths of family members and fellow writers, and the myriad of small losses continually generated by the passage of time, these four texts are all marked to some degree by an interest in the politics of loss as an experience that, at least potentially, encourages a recognition of our common vulnerability, and the extent to which our lives are interconnected with those of others.

Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s Threading Light bears the subtitle Explorations in Loss and Poetry, but the book reads more like a series of journal entries than a poetry collection. It consists mainly of prose paragraphs, occasionally interspersed with poems of two- or four-line stanzas. Densely allusive, the book is liberally scattered throughout with epigraphs from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Robert Pogue Harrison, Connie Kaldor, Tomas Tranströmer, and Milan Kundera, just to name those that appear in the first dozen pages or so. For many an elegist, writing of loss provides an opportunity to locate oneself as part of a community of peers and predecessors, but in Glenn’s book, this strategy sometimes backfires: against the formal deftness of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” which prefaces the section entitled “The Art of Losing,” for example, Glenn’s paragraphs can seem rather slack. This is particularly true of the final section, a meandering meditation on, among other things, literary foremothers, the L’Arche movement, and the challenges of coming to poetry later in life, which could have benefited from more rigorous shaping and editing. Glenn’s autobiographical approach is more vivid and compelling when it turns to fragmentary sketches of a childhood in northern Manitoba, or sifts through the mystery of a boyfriend’s long-ago suicide and its aftermath. The author’s interest in ethnography comes through in the pondering of “Things Eschatological,” burial practices and beliefs about death held among the Navajo, the peoples of Baffin Island, in medieval Europe, and Victorian Canada. A section called “Ground” explores the etymology of words like “cemetery,” “graveyard,” and “columbarium,” and suggests the importance of situating the literature of loss within the context of a material culture of mourning that includes different modes and sites of burial, since “language isn’t large enough to hold what we cannot even fathom.”

One conclusion that Glenn reaches is that, as someone with “the gift of an ordinary life, [her] losses and griefs are small-throated,” when compared with those of others in this world. The unequal distribution of loss across populations of varying degrees of privilege is a subject taken up by Evelyn Lau in A Grain of Rice in a manner much more incisive and technically assured. “Guanacaste Journal” shows denizens of a resort in Costa Rica ignoring television coverage of the Haitian earthquake with the justification:

we have our own grief.

What would we do with someone else’s,

where would we carry it on our bodies?

Already the doctor says I am too heavy.

This is one of a series of travel poems that comprise the third of the book’s four sections, and expose the workings of a bloated, consumerist, tourist culture founded on the denial of bodily vulnerability: in “Honolulu,” a puddle of urine left by a dying man in a public market is discreetly covered by “a stand of flyers advertising / luaus, scuba dives, Polynesian dinner shows.” In the book’s first section, Lau’s hometown of Vancouver does not come across any better as she repeatedly directs our attention to the dispossession and violence wreaked by urban renewal and rising property taxes. These poems explore the uneasy co-existence of affluence and destitution: a homeless woman burns to death while trying to keep warm a mere “five blocks away” from where others lie comfortably under “a snowdrift of duvets” (“Snow Globe City”). Derelict houses give way to “glossy condo[s]” whose inhabitants enjoy an existence that combines isolation and intimacy as sounds from neighbours’ bathrooms leak through the walls (“City Centre”). Writing of urban “apartment-dwellers,” Lau borrows a phrase from Al Purdy’s “Lament for the Dorsets,” and perpetuates his depiction of the modern cityscape as emblematic of a society on the brink of destruction (“Noise”). Things are always exploding in this book: “fireworks like dropped bombs” at the Vancouver Olympics, plants “exploding open / with cargoes of allergens” in spring, the human heart in middle age threatening to burst “like a charge detonated out of sight” to name but three examples. Lau’s poems are spoken in a direct, almost casual first-person voice that nonetheless employs careful acoustic effects to convey a variety of moods. “After the Gold Medal Hockey Win, 2010 Olympics” maintains a high-pitched assonance that conveys the brutal energy of a celebration spilling over into riot:

Geese veer into the panicked sky.

The streets are bleeding

with red, horns blaring, screams

not even the dying could summon.

Figures stream out of buildings

carrying pots and pans

like refugees fleeing on foot.

Lau’s art is equally capable of evoking the quietude of a December snowfall with a softly alliterative line like “Flakes of funereal ash falling from the sky” in “Dear Updike.” This last poem is part of a sequence of elegies to the late author, in which Lau tries to forge a connection with a man she never met by visualizing and projecting herself into the places he loved.

Similarly emphasizing the close connections among place, identity, and loss, Jenna Butler’s Wells memorializes a grandmother living with Alzheimer’s disease by evoking the sounds, smells, and textures of the English village on the North Sea where she has spent her life. This is no rural idyll, however; as in Lau’s, the threat of violence simmers beneath the surface of Butler’s poems, even when she writes about a country garden whose flowers are a “punch of blue in a jacksnipe of prickles,” and whose scent “threatens to break open the world.” Meticulously crafted, the book consists of eight sections of six poems each in which Butler charts the stages of her grandmother’s “vanish[ing]” and shores up the details of her world in long-lined stanzas of varying lengths. Cumulatively, the poems are “an homage to all the things that underpin memory,” as each section treats a different element from the grandmother’s life while emphasizing a different form of sensory perception. For example, the section entitled “Flight” attempts to preserve the grandmother’s trove of knowledge about local birds, insistently recording the names of species (“meadow pipits,” “coal tits,” “dunnocks”) that the grandmother herself can no longer recall. Seeing the old woman’s “eyes flare briefly” at the call of a mistle thrush, the poet tries to wring from language its utmost capacity to approximate the sounds of the world (the “great, rolling susurrus” of storm petrels making landfall, for example) in an attempt to prolong her grandmother’s connection to the things she loves when the words for them no longer have meaning for her. As the anguished observer of her grandmother’s illness, Butler comments in the collection’s concluding notes that Alzheimer’s involves “not just the loss of the ones we care for, but the loss of ourselves in them” as we see “ourselves erased from memory.” This awareness of Alzheimer’s as something that undermines the notion of the autonomous self, and forces an acknowledgement of our identities as interwoven with those of others is underscored by the structure of the book itself, which includes two sections, titled “He” and “& She” respectively, that provide portraits of the grandmother’s parents, as if to suggest that there can be no memorial to the grandmother herself that does not include this web of family connections. The concluding section, “Flesh,” affirms the poet’s ongoing connection with a woman who “couldn’t always recall [her] name, but . . . knew [her] touch.” In a culture that often identifies selfhood with precisely those abilities that people with Alzheimer’s lose—the abilities to both remember and narrate their lives—Butler’s emphasis on the persistence of her grandmother’s embodied identity here is politically important.

Forms of embodied expression are also foregrounded in Patrick Friesen’s book A Dark Boat, a substantial collection of seventy-five poems, interspersed with black and white photographs (presumably the poet’s own), drawn from his travels in Portugal and Spain, many of which explore the expressive possibilities of song and dance forms like fado and flamenco. Friesen’s short lines, frequent monosyllables, and abundance of hard consonants effectively convey the dancers’ percussive rhythms. Envisioning dance as the locus of the genesis of the world, Friesen overturns the logocentrism of the Judaeo-Christian tradition:

the world began with

a sharp handclap then

staccato fingers swirling

across strings (“Palmas”)

In place of the elegist’s habitual faith in the enduring power of the written word, the primacy accorded in these poems to song and dance substitutes a different kind of endurance: “the song outlives all,” but “the singer is never the same.” The song survives not to confer glory on an individual singer, but only to be continually reinterpreted in the mortal bodies of successive generations of performers.

In some poems, Friesen’s characteristic refusal to separate words with punctuation celebrates the possibilities of cultural pluralism:

that alluvial moment

morocco sacromonte and

sepharad where songs

hook into each other

songs arrive and leave

owned by no one

only the dead have

the voice to sing them (“Alluvial”)

The universalist conviction that these songs are “owned by no one” enables the poet to absorb various influences into his own work, yet this is accompanied by a persistent awareness of his separateness from the cultures that he encounters as a traveller. For example, in another poem about flamenco, he sits outside a club listening to the “staccato of black shoes” coming from within (“Almost 60 Outside Peña de la Platería”). This ex-centric position is reinforced by recurrent images of windows as metaphors for the poet’s encounters with otherness: in “Widow,” the window is a site of revelation and concealment as the poet can see a woman’s hands “[lying] on the sill,” yet admits he doesn’t “know what’s behind her / in the dark room / what she will enter when she turns.” Friesen’s attraction to and distance from the melancholic fado tradition from which he borrows is acknowledged from the outset in the titular poem that opens the collection:

the world is quiet outside

though you know it’s writhing

you can’t speak

about the world

the fadista sang

of a dark boat

you make do

with the night you have

Like Glenn’s cognizance of her “small-throated” griefs, Friesen’s “making do” is a reminder of the importance of putting one’s own losses and longings into perspective. His poems do more than “make do,” however; they are both evocative and compelling in their exploration of how loss can connect us across cultural boundaries, yet also make visible the limits of that connectedness.

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