A Calendar of Reckoning. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Blackbird Song. University of Regina Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Throwing the Diamond Hitch. University of Calgary Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
“You dream . . . of tiny seeds / planted and sprouting songs / deep in gray-brown bellies.” In Randy Lundy’s poem “Benediction” these closing lines provide a perfect metaphor for three new collections of poems by Randy Lundy, Dave Margoshes, and Emily Ursuliak. All three books are strongly narrative, telling stories of grandmothers, girls on horseback, and memories of an ordinary childhood, and in all three books, the writers take us through the delicious bodies of the poems, to find the small, essential seeds of human experience.
The poems in Dave Margoshes’ new collection, A Calendar of Reckoning, offer that gift of giving us a moment that stays with us all day, and maybe into the next. His images hold our attention, like bright apples in an orchard of ordinary trees. Here is one of his best, from his poem “Ashes”:
I skin the last smoke, take its innards
in the palm of my hand, dry and granular
as broken ash. When I feel ready I step
out of the car,
walk into the copse of trees near the
and scatter my father’s remains.
His poems are quietly meditative and while meditative poems can be pedantic, he never falls into that trap. What I admire most about this work is that his poems are hard and sweet: no showing off, no extra weight, just the densely packed core of story and truth, often in the final lines of his poems. In “Birthday” he ends with “I was there, / he said, I saw it,” and it’s an ending that’s earned. Another favourite is the end of the poem “The Clearing” about a moose that looks in the writer’s window: “I bowed my head and wished her safe passage / in a world not made for innocence, curiosity, near-sightedness.”
In Blackbird Song, Randy Lundy creates a unique structural pattern throughout his book. He creates pairings of poems, like a call and response, or like the larger, outer meal and the dense, richer core. The first poems in the pairings are longer, and more narrative, and then the following poems are spare and dense. For example, his poem “A Prayer,” weaves the narrative of the speaker’s grandmother with a story about a frozen bird. Then the poem following, titled “Woman Who Taught her Grandson to Love,” is a six-line poem that distills the ideas of the longer poem into one hard, beautiful seed:
One day the entries stopped
sudden as the heart/in a palm-sized
at forty below zero.
This kind of doubling—a longer narrative then a haiku-like image that distills it—is unique for a collection of poetry. It’s exciting to see this kind of structural innovation in a book of narrative poems.
In her debut collection, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, Emily Ursuliak also writes stories; these are about her grandmother and her best friend on an epic adventure they took in the 1950s. This is the most conventional narrative of the three books, as we follow the two young women across the wild landscape on horseback. If Margoshes specializes in ending his poems with memorable images, Ursuliak knows how to begin a poem. Each poem begins with a small explosion of taste: “The land refuses maps / a rebellion against any / straight path on paper” (“Piebald Eyes Meet Their Match”). Another memorable opening is: “The hotel and its broken / geography, up on jacks” (“Keremeos”). Like any good novelist, she knows how to hook us, and make us want to keep reading. The poems spin out in a satisfying way, but it’s those openings that really stick in our throats: “Thickened spit clings to the bit and tries to drip, but stretches” (“Two Kinds of Diamonds”). Each of these poems is a small explosion of taste, and each draws us onward, wanting the next one.
All three of these poets show mastery of technique, particularly in poetic storytelling. And any one of these books will provide a satisfying afternoon walk, an immersion in light and leafy shade, beneath a richness of poems to pick and savour.