Sunday, March 2, 2008

Positioning the Personal

This review was published in Event volume 36.3.

Torch River by Elizabeth Philips
Heron Cliff by Margo Button
The Pear Orchard by Joanne Weber

In Elizabeth Philips fourth collection of poetry, Torch River, she writes of the primal experiences of death, birth and sexuality and its intrinsic and metaphoric relation to the natural world. In the series of poems, “Fatherhood”, she considers the experience of birth from the usually neglected angle of the labouring woman’s partner. Each poem documents the stages of labour, from the onset he “hooks his gaze/ into hers,/ and her irises are water,/ a blue he falls into like thirst” (p.62), to the birth itself when “her hands throttle his,/ and leaning into the oars, she pushes and/ pushes, drawing him with her in to the water, it washes over them/ the head surging” (p.69). The lines ebb and flow like the current she is describing, washing out to the far reaches of the edge of page and then pulling far back in.

Her imagery is both fresh and startling in its beauty. When describing a newborn it would be easy to sentimentalize, but Philips never falls into that trap. The child has “cheeks streaked with vernix/ and blood, her small hands, creased/ pink lilies.” (p.73) Philips’ use of animal and fauna imagery set human experience within the broader context of nature. Her work proliferates with coyote, fawn, frogs, wolves, owls, geese, columbine, lilies, spruce, aspen, birch, crocus and lichen. In “Sunday” she describes kissing as “mouth/ on mouth (the inside of/ sea scent, oysters/ kelp lustrous/ anemone)” (pgs. 102-3). Our lives seen through and experienced as a part of nature, a type of seasonal flux of sensuality, suffering and pain, from relaxing summer days spent in the water to the harsh winter of snow and ice.

Philips style is quite varied. At its best, the diction, rhythm and line length match the content. In the poem “Jackknife/ 2” she writes,

I tag him

or I don’t.
He swaggers

no matter what.
With the deftness

of a novice
I’ve leaned the language

that drives us
toward that hallowed

and to no mind

goal line.
Fuck! is the sound of

the ball (p.28)

The diction is straightforward, lean and masculine in its directness. The short quick lines are like the snap of the football, and the hard sounding repetition of the “d” in don’t, deftness, and drives leads up to the even harder sounding exclamation “Fuck!” At the other extreme, Philips uses lines that are long and flowing. The poems are meditative and the stream-of-consciousness technique works, in that, it represents the fluidity of both water and thought. In the opening poem, “Breath”, the long-winded passages move like a deep inhale and exhale.

It’s that little catch, of pleasure
or release, when I first glimpse the river
each morning, the river that never pauses, not
in its meander or undertow, the light
breaking apart the sky and reassembling it
the wide, flat rock we call
Pelican Rock. (p.9)

The flowing lines have purpose and are not, in themselves, the problem. The issue is that she drifts into abstraction so often that I am sometimes at a loss about what exactly her point is. In an attempt to capture the ever-shifting currents of thought, she seems to loose her own point. “What was I saying?” (p.10) she asks, and I think, hey, if you don’t know then how am I supposed to. In another poem she asserts, “I’m going to say it now,/ are you listening?” (p.16) and I have to answer no, sorry, I wasn’t. You lost me.

Although some poems, especially at the beginning of the collection, are unable to hold my attention with their meandering thoughts and philosophical questioning, I thought the collection as a whole worth reading. Philips displays finely tuned control over her language and is able to adjust her diction and style to create a wide range of effects. The best poems are honest, unpretentious in style and contain fresh and relevant imagery. The poems in Torch River are wide-ranging, and Philips should be applauded for varying her style and emotional tone from poem to poem. Too many poets write consistently in one style, risking nothing. Philips writing is confident, skilled, and full of sensuality. With a genuine voice, she conveys how life can be altered within a single moment and how the currents can both buoy or sink us.

In Heron Cliff, Margo Button’s poetry delves into the personal tragedy of a beloved son who committed suicide, and the interconnectedness of pain and suffering that all people experience when trying to cope with death or violence. Whereas, Torch River, set the personal in the larger context of the natural world, Heron Cliff positions the personal within the global context. Her son’s death is set among poems about a Beirut uprising, acts of terrorism, a mass grave in Guatemala, and a drowning in Mexico where “a cry keens around the cove,/ vibrates in me like a tuning fork.” (p.49) Button is able to vacillate between the personal and public in a way that brings the eye up close to focus on the individual petals of a singular flower and then travels back out to view the entire garden set inside a landscape. She explores the notion of home, her own relationship to family, and what wisdom can be garnered from others. When watching a child, she writes, “Today she learns to turn her head sideways/ for a different view of the world./ Today I practice with her.” (p.39)

Although the emotions in her work are powerful, I found Button’s style in the first two sections of the book to be lacking. It is narrative, expository, anecdotal and devoid of musicality and syntactical play. In some instances the poems appear to be the beginning of a news report: “A sunny winter day in 1919/ my grandmother…” (p.32) or “January 7, 1936, a wintry day in Maine/ he grabs his lunch pail, rushes off/ to the yards, signs his daily orders” (p.33). That poems examining death, its aftermath, violence and universal suffering, solemn and grave topics if there ever were ones, are written in a causal and almost chatty style seems incongruent and does not give the reader a weighted importance of the material. Perhaps it was Button’s intent to write in a colloquial style to levy this importance against the ordinariness of the everyday, but I found it to be a stylistic discrepancy.

In many ways the first two sections of the book reads like chopped prose, but this changes in the third and last section of the book. “Blue Dahlias” is a long series of poems, numbering one page short of twenty, and are the strongest in the entire collection. Whereas the previous poems were prosaic and too explanatory in their meaning, these poems are impressionistic and allow for textual openness. Like trying to tell a story through individual snapshots that have been dumped from a box onto the floor, the reader gathers up each image and arranges and interprets for herself. Take for example the lines,

Upended, a spider crab is comical
brandishing pincers like boxing gloves.

The nuthatch couples stick close to home.
Yet they don’t know their name.

Christmas in July. The yew decked out in rubies.
Edmontonians shovelling hailstones. (p.77)

Here, Button is at her most poetic. The images are juxtaposed, without exposition and unnecessary narration. As a result, the fragments are striking and elegant in style and they challenge the reader to go deeper into the work. What does the crab, nuthatch and decorated yew have in common? I have to think further on this: an unknown threat, a sense of vulnerability, useless ornamentation, or a sense of not belonging. These poems are challenging at times, but the work pays off. In the end, Heron Cliff is about the interconnection of people and how shouldering someone else’s pain brings us closer to our own humanity. “Listen to her sobs,” Button writes, “her small sorrows/ as keen as ours.” (p.91). The “Blue Dahlias” series effectively redeems the collection from its earlier pitfalls. It proves what Button is capable of, and in the future I hope her talents will be further honed and more consistently displayed.

Joanne Weber’s The Pear Orchard, is an impressive first collection. The themes of suffering, birth and sexuality are explored in relation to a deaf woman struggling to communicate with her lover, a man capable of hearing, and the world around her. Whereas in the earlier collections the personal was set in the context of the natural world or the global community, with The Pear Orchard the personal journey of the woman is woven into a symbolic tapestry of myth, legend, art and literary history. References to John Donne, Saint Augustine, George Sand, Heloise, and the paintings of Jan Van Eyck and Renoir abound, to name just a few. The first section of the book is written like a mythic re-enactment of a medieval tale: a young woman seduced by a boy who raids her father’s orchard. She later becomes his Queen and bears him children.

There is a tension created between the mythic world of saints and icons, where she is a noblewoman in a “stiff headdress of pears” (p.15) and the woman who wears “jeans now that it is the harvest.” (p.28) This duality is evident throughout the collection, as the woman tries to bring her two worlds together. In an interesting reversal, the persona in “Simple Gifts1” is her lover, who states,

…think of me as your king,
a medieval metaphor surely pleases you.

Think of me too, as a simple man,
I enjoy simple pleasures:
a walk in my fields each day,
measuring the stubble with the toe of my boot. (p.33)

What I find fascinating is not the retelling of an archetypal story, many have done this before, but the way in which Weber takes the ordinary object of a pear and through the use of language makes it multi-facetted. Like the many mirrors and reflective waters she writes of, the pear too becomes something brilliant and glittering. The entire collection pivots around the singular image of the pear and what can be made of it metaphorically. What is a pear capable of being? It can be an offering of juice, representing sensual pleasure. It can be sliced, cut, pierced, even “smashed… against the stone wall” (p.20), symbolic of a tortured body. Pears are canned, stored, or eaten, thereby becoming a source of bodily/ spiritual sustenance. It has a core and seeds and is suggestive of growth and fertility. The very shape of it, being a “heavy bottomed fruit” (p.11) suggests a pregnant woman’s body. It smells like vanilla, with connotations of baked goods, an earthy and domestic life. It grows in an orchard, where it can be picked, stolen and tasted, symbolic of sexuality and a loss of virginity. In Weber’s talented hands, the pear, at turns, becomes all of these things. Take the wonderfully evocative and sensual line, “let my language come between us,/ hard as a young green pear.” (p.13) The pear is obviously indicative of masculine sexuality, but given the syntax of the line it is also “language” itself. Language, and by extension Weber’s poetry, is able to come between people with passion and tension and the expectation of pleasure.

Weber’s verse is pleasing, to the eye and the ear. It is musical and contains an alliterative quality, but does not become overly showy. Her collection is full of beautifully written and balanced lines like “sprays of spores, and ripening orange.” (p.25) and “bathing perfumes stored in stone jars/ by rocks on the shore.” (p.34) The sound play in her poetry is evident everywhere, and her stylish lines are able to dazzle without completely taking over the content. As a first collection, the ability to achieve a balance between content and style is remarkable by itself. If I was to make any criticism of the collection, it would be that she reuses too many of the same metaphors and images. Although this creates a sense of unity in the work and makes it cohesive, at times it felt like I was reading the same poem over. But this seems a small offence in a collection that sparkles with multifaceted imagery, a skillful handling of diction and rhythm, emotional felicity and a genuine engagement with the material. The Pear Orchard is a welcome debut by a poet who has much to offer.