Few contemporary poets seem to have a grounding in Biblical & Classical traditions sufficient for these sources to be woven wholly into their poetry in a way that revivifies these narratives. In Canada, Anne Carson is one of the few entirely steeped in mythic interpretation. Also rare are portrayals, in poems, of motherhood, among other deeply felt experiences, that don’t fall into sentimental or gushing modes. Both McCaslin in Demeter Goes Skydiving & Rose in Song & Spectacle are proficient at translating the structures of myth and/or ancient forms into resonant lyrics that speak of difficult matter: a daughter’s anorexia, early molestation, lesbian parenting, the horrors of suicide. Truly moving work.
1/Demeter Goes Skydiving (The University of Alberta Press, 2011)
What Shines: Beautifully designed with grey-scale insert pages featuring a textured white shirt, (apart from the fussy French sleeves which I find make reading awkward), over half this collection explores the Demeter & Persephone myth. The strongest pieces are those in which the author morphs into Demeter, a persona that enables her to express her rage over society’s superficiality, a veneer of diet pills, gyms, fashion magazines, reality shows, plastic surgery and other ways of controlling women by weakening their capacity for self love and esteem. The titular poem and others such as “Hades’ Gym”,” “Persephone in Hades” and “Underground Olympics” swell the myth into contemporary prominence in tight stanzas that perfectly convey the tension of quivering “at the edge of the abyss” without respite from suffering’s knowledge apart from a “brief and heavy catharsis.” And although I resist poems full of current “pop” references I love McCaslin’s now dated, “Demeter Tries to Adopt Britney Spears” in which the speaker imagines “swooping in for an aerial pickup” of the tormented star and introducing her to her own “hidden wholeness.” Later pieces in the second half of the book that trace states of aging and the long path of a companionate marriage, especially her “Corona Anniversaire” are also potent and sadly, all too uncommon evocations of female reality, tinged always in McCaslin’s work (she too was once my professor) with her sprawling, sensuous comprehension of what Northrop Frye called The Great Code (not just the Bible but mythological ways of ordering the world in general to my mind).
What Stumbles: At times, as in what I call “sketch poems” like Immagini Di Paradiso, the form doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself, perhaps to represent the earthquake in this piece at least, a echoing that still needs a conscious ordering behind it to be effective. And endings can poof out into pedantic statements like the last two lines of Great-Grandmother Steps In: “A balance within her/she could count on.” Inversions and archaic residue can also mar otherwise sharply delineated poems as when we trip over the phrase “untimely ripped” in her colloquy between Demeter and her Inner Gaia. I read such moments as the scholarly text rising above the tangible world this book wishes to portray; when both fuse, the results are stunning.
What it Echoes: Matrushka Dolls, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Blake’s marriage to Catherine, Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, Wallis Simpson’s statement “you can never be too rich or too thin”, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.
2/Song & Spectacle (Harbour Publishing, 2012)
What Shines: I must say that this gorgeously bird-smattered book, along with the American poet Sharon Olds’ “Stag’s Leap” and the recent BC Book awards winner (previously Marrow-reviewed), Sarah de Leeuw’s “Geographies of a Lover”, stand as the three collections that have affected me at my core over the past year. Each, though they deal with wrenching subject matter, more from how they use language and form, than for anything they are “saying,” as needs must be, but is too infrequently the case, with all poetry. In what should be key reading for any poet, the essay “The Word and the Stone” from Random Walks (1997) by David Solway, speaks of how psyche-altering poetry crystallizes out of experience rather than dissolving into it (57). There is a vast richness of experience in Song & Spectacle, from lesbian parenting to suicide to war and the awareness of environmental damage, yet most of the poems soar through and beyond either the quotidian imagery or potentially dreary abstractions that often bust like the hundred Horatian-heads of Cerberus from poems purporting to “deal” with massive, pressing issues. The sequence that jewels darkly throughout the book, all titles beginning with either “What We Heard About” or What the ___ Perhaps Heard” are consistently engaging, especially “What the Sea Perhaps Heard” and “What we Heard about the Suicide” and “Death,” with their devastatingly clean couplets and lines such as, “Beloved: we heard there was a scythe, grim/slice of last breath, last song flooding the lungs/and then would come the end of ends, the beginning/ of beginnings, the silence of silences.” Other superb pieces are “Delivery Room under Renovation,” the “Maternal Sapphics” trilogy and the exquisite, serious-silly ditties, “Hymn to Shit: Four Movements” and “Resume of Failure” which blends “Failure to complete a single/sudoku” with “Repeated failure/at prayer.” The book closes with the gut-tearing admonition: “If you’re not sure, stay. Stay/at least until you put out/the love letter/on fire at your door.” I’m not going anywhere.
What Stumbles: The book does pick up resonance as it flows along and seems to veer from simple slips into the picturesque into a more risky zone. Perhaps I just “tuned into” Rose’s soft, fierce voice more acutely as I read but from about “Drunk” on I started to cry out “YES!” at every poem. I think only her pieces that move into the realm of sexual pain and that veil it in myth as in the aubades of Grendel’s mother or Buddha’s wife are less stirring. To draw upon these stories to tell our own we must know them utterly in our blood (whether she does or not I couldn’t feel it in the way I do with McCaslin’s oeuvre). Ending with lines like “Shalom. Namaste. Another dawn will come./Palomino-pulled chariot, bridal gown undone” does not do the rupturing justice. And I wanted her traditional ghazal on Neruda, “Tired,” to do more leaping. Regardless, this homage to being wholly alive is almost consistent aria.
What it Echoes: Joe Brainard’s “I remember,” Natalie Dessay singing Stravinsky’s “Le Rossingnol,” Anne Sexton, The Song of Songs, Sharon Olds, Gluck’s “Medallion” painting (1937), “The Hours” (2002).