The context in which one reads a book can be crucial in terms of one’s ability to receive. If I experience resistance to a book I know I am supposed to enjoy for whatever reason, I always return for a re-read. Catherine Greenwood is one of Canada’s most articulate, intelligent and interesting poets. So when I read The Lost Letters after reviewing Mike Blouin’s latest and felt, apart from a few knockout poems, somewhat detached and disappointed, I knew this was mostly me. I was experiencing a lyric slump after being exposed to an experimental text for a period of time. A text I relished but that somehow tarnished my initial entree into Greenwood’s collection. I don’t know why I am telling you this. I suppose to remind myself to always give everything a second chance. Well, almost everything. I re-read this book after reading several other collections of lyrics and suddenly it was superior and singing. Phew.
What Shines: Seriously, so many poems. A poet with this many strong pieces in their book is rare. Especially in the first longer section, Turtle Soup (which could have used a more evocative title), almost every lyric glows with an empathic ear, rambunctious in aural richness and at the same time, quiet in a metaphysically meditative way, the images unwrapping themselves almost before you notice, like shyly imaginative candy with a zing in the middle. “Two Blue Elephants,” “The Natural History of the Hamster,” “Silver-Haired Bat Caught in a Ceiling Lamp,” “Wasp’s Nest” and “Sow’s Ears” are particularly stupendous. From the almost onomatopoeic risks of an alliterative line like “Eeny-meany-est of misanthropes” to the deeply moving scene of a bat rescue which closes, “Singing, re-enters the night,” Greenwood fleshes out a Marianne Moore vision that more generously textures an essential access to those species beyond us. There are so many wondrous pieces in this section, I am afraid it took awhile for me to appreciate the human love story of Abelard & Heloise modernized that provides the central sequence in The Lost Letters. The second time around, I was drawn in at greater depth to this tale of impossible yearnings, spiced by spirituality but seasoned by desire. The Sapphic fragments (though they could have been less grammatically coherent at times given the genre) and the longer poem “Yes and No” are especially stirring for their evocations of intellectual and somatic regret. Emerging from this sequence into the lyrics of the final, titular part, poems that deal with extinguishing aspects of contemporary existence like “Rotary Dial Telephone,” I was a bit discombobulated, but again, there are absolute lexical whirligigs of poems here, particularly “Company Town” that moves brilliantly from the effect of closures on humans to the natural world, concluding with the image of a woodpecker writing a resume on the “unbleached bark of trees,” as well as the compassionate “Charity” and the stunning “Texada Queen”. A huzzah of the ear is afoot! 🙂
What Stumbles: I am not wholly taken with the cover. It looks cluttered to my eye with the title dropping in a chunky block of letters, perhaps to emphasize their lostness but against the dun backdrop of hands and texts the design didn’t leap forth. Also, I still wish this was two books. One, the lyrics and the other the Abelard and Heloise section, which would have been much more powerful on its own, as with Susan McCaslin’s Letters to William Blake. An attempt was made to draw it all together by putting one of the A & H poems first, “Monk Love Blues,” but my ache to steep in either/or wasn’t convinced. A few poems are toss-aways such as “Epitaph for the Last of the Red Hot Lovers” which trivialized the emotional intensity (still with its necessary flickerings of humour) that preceded this piece. Also, the final poem, “The Jar” would have made a more potent short story as it flops too often into saggy idioms like “Weary from toil” and “danced cheek to cheek.” Yet, in the end, mere quibbles.
What it Echoes (beyond the already noted allusions): Seamus Heaney, Irving Layton’s Bull Calf, the Chicken episode of the TV show Orange is the New Black, Elizabeth Bishop’s Moose, Ted Hughes, Hildegard von Bingen jamming with the Blues Brothers, a compote made from an extinct fruit forgotten in the pantry, Alice Major’s Office Tower Tales, The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton (a screenplay), Fortitude by Sandro Botticelli.