Voices Through Time

  • Gary Geddes
    What Does A House Want?. Red Hen (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Mark Abley (Editor) and Anne Szumigalski
    A Woman Clothed in Words. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Gary Geddes’ recent selection of poems written between 1971-2014 is an eclectic mix that will be an excellent introduction to his work for a new audience and a confirmation to those already familiar with his oeuvre of his formidable gifts. Fifty-seven poems are grouped into nine sections, each introduced by an epigraph, while endnotes provide historical context. Their arrangement is by subject and theme, and the topics covered are wide-ranging, embracing the public and private, the personal and political domains; for Geddes, these binaries are not oppositional but complementary facets of his life and craft, inseparable spheres of human self-discovery and a search for truth through experience and language. In “Last Canto” he advises us to forget “dicta” and to simply “listen to the poems” because they are “wiser and more truthful than the poets”:

Remember the ideogram
from the Chinese
the one representing truth
which shows a man
standing beside his word.
Nothing more.

And listen he does—always to the voices of humans who have struggled in their historical contingency. As we enter Geddes’ house of language, we find there a welcoming space of intimacy and empathy, providing a meaningful encounter with many personalities from times between the Neolithic to the contemporary, and from places around the world to a city or farm in Canada. Geddes’ skillful use of the lyric, dramatic, and narrative styles is ably demonstrated both in the shorter and longer poems, giving us the multiple voices of the victims of the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge (1958), Trotsky, Chinese figurines, Palestinians, Latinos, or Gaelic ancestors.

He feels compelled to resuscitate them—“Midnight, my ghosts are restless, demanding answers.”—but sometimes “The dead refused to talk.” Language ceases in the face of great grief: “My bag of tricks was empty; my hat delivered only dead birds.” He pays careful attention to the minute detail—the twitching mouse`s tail—and to the larger movements of history as well as to the ubiquity of violence and death in unexpected moments. His historical subject is the common person whose diction he articulates in direct, colloquial, sometimes raw, and humorous tones. Although he rejects the “Neoclassical” and the Wordsworthian “sublime” style, Geddes nevertheless reveals a Romantic residue in his choice of speakers, elevating ordinary working people and their struggles to a level of simple nobility that arouses respect and recognition. The revolutionary impetus blazes still in his verse: “Clean the barrel of each sentence, / keep dry the magazine of words.” In Geddes’ house built of words, honed with poetic skill, the reader finds solidarity with the “Other” but experiences vulnerability and finitude in the disruption and death that are ever near.

A Woman Clothed in Words is a collection of the late Anne Szumigalski’s poetry, prose, liturgical, and theatrical works (some of them previously published and performed, others incomplete), selected and edited by Mark Abley. The collection is arranged chronologically in three parts dating from 1960-1999. An introduction, biographical and publishing notes frame this book intended for a non-academic audience.

The book is a gateway into the realm of the Goddess whence Szumigalski’s creations emerge. Rhythm and image predate the word. She speculates that “pre-languages influenced the later spoken ones” and that their traces in ideograms reveal a lost evolutionary past: “We are all of us longing for Africa though we don’t know it.”

“Untitled,” an early poem in which the Old Woman/Nature enters into Adam to make herself intimately known, reverberates in the later story, “A State of Grace,” which associates childhood with the birth of stories. In the uterine state—“in the darkness between two worlds”—the stories already exist, and Old Woman later allows Nancy to touch Her mystery: “Now and then the Old Woman took my hand and let me feel in her basket.”

Similar pieces (“The Child is Mother of the Woman,” “The Story of the Heartberry,” “Litany of the Bagladies,” “Prairie Mass,” “Golden Rat”) probe the proximity of children, crones, and animals to the sacred. Many of her poems communicate spiritual mysteries through nature imagery. Szumigalski’s traumatic wartime memories are exorcised in “Three Women at the End of the World” and in “Carrying the Stone” by voicing women’s pain: “Carrying children, carrying water, carrying burdens almost too great to bear. Carrying stones.” The poet-psychopomp has led us on a “pilgrimage” to the darkest places in the psyche where the Goddess dwells.

This review “Voices Through Time” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 154-55.

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